Aquatic rover goes for a drive under the ice

An underwater rover called BRUIE is being tested in Antarctica to look for life under the ice. Developed by engineers at NASA-JPL, the robotic submersible could one day explore ice-covered oceans on moons like Europa and Enceladus. BRUIE is pictured here in an arctic lake near Barrow, Alaska in 2015.
Credit: NASA

A little robotic explorer will be rolling into Antarctica this month to perform a gymnastic feat—driving upside down under sea ice.

BRUIE, or the Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration, is being developed for underwater exploration in extraterrestrial, icy waters by engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. It will spend the next month testing its endurance at Australia’s Casey research station in Antarctica, in preparation for a mission that could one day search for life in  worlds beyond Earth.

There are moons throughout the solar system believed to be covered in  hidden beneath thick, frozen surfaces. Scientists like Kevin Hand, JPL lead scientist on the BRUIE project, believe that these lunar oceans, such as those on Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus, may be the best places to look for life in our solar system. But first, they’ll need a tough aquatic explorer capable of navigating solo through an alien ocean locked under ice sheets that could be six to 12 miles (10 to 19 kilometers) thick.

“The ice shells covering these distant oceans serve as a window into the oceans below, and the chemistry of the ice could help feed life within those oceans. Here on Earth, the ice covering our polar oceans serves a similar role, and our team is particularly interested in what is happening where the water meets the ice,” said Hand.

The Antarctic waters are the closest Earth analog to the seas of an icy moon, which makes them an ideal testing ground for BRUIE technology. Three feet (1 meter) long and equipped with two wheels to roll along beneath the ice, the buoyant rover can take images and collect data on the important region where water and ice meet, what scientists call the “ice-water interface.”

“We’ve found that life often lives at interfaces, both the sea bottom and the ice-water interface at the top. Most submersibles have a challenging time investigating this area, as  might cause them to crash, or they would waste too much power maintaining position,” said lead engineer Andy Klesh. “BRUIE, however, uses buoyancy to remain anchored against the ice and is impervious to most currents. In addition, it can safely power down, turning on only when it needs to take a measurement, so that it can spend months observing the under-ice environment.”

During several Antarctic field tests, the rover will remain tethered to the surface as Hand, Klesh, mechanical engineer Dan Berisford and University of Western Australia engineer Dan Arthur test its suite of instruments, including its two live, high-definition cameras.

MORE of the story and another associated image / click image TOP of PAGE