Fishy Robot Designed To Dunk Into Europa’s Oceans

Artist's squid-like depiction of a soft robot./NASA/Cornell University/NSF

Both NASA and the ESA are itching to slip a probe into Europa’s orbit, and for good reason: this icy moon, one of Jupiter’s largest, is a tantalizing candidate for finding alien life in our solar system. That’s because it’s believed to host a vast ocean of liquid water beneath its frozen shell, which could contain certain ingredients essential for life. It’s also warmed up by its orbit in a process known as tidal heating, which could provide the energy and chemistry needed to kick start life.

Swinging around this satellite and probing it with instruments could provide us with some eagerly-anticipated clarity over speculations such as these, but what if we could probe even deeper, literally? That’s the dream of a bunch of ambitious engineers at Cornell, who have come up with a design for a fish-like robot which could glide through Europa’s oceans.

Inspired by the lamprey, a toothy, eel-like species, the soft robot would move and behave like a fish, albeit it looks more like a squid. The innovative explorer’s design is complete with electrodynamic “tentacles,” which serve as energy-harvesting tethers. These structures would generate power using the strong, fluctuating electromagnetic fields donated by Jupiter.

Alongside juicing up the rover’s various instruments, the scavenged energy would also power its propulsion system. This would propel the bot through its liquid environment by electrolyzing water, a process that splits H2O molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. These gases would then be stored separately inside internal chambers, ready to be mixed and then ignited by a spark, creating a mini explosion which would drive the probe forward. Alternatively, these reactions could be used to drive coordinated tentacle motions, so it would swim a bit more like a real squid, according to Extreme Tech.

“The bio-inspired technologies we propose to consider bypass the need to power rovers with limited-lifetime batteries, large solar arrays or nuclear power,” co-principal investigator Mason Peck told Washington Post. “In this one respect, it is a breakthrough concept.”

Another innovative feature is the bot’s “skin,” which would be composed of a stretchy, electroluminescent material capable of lighting up the environment as it goes, which would help its onboard imaging equipment produce decent underwater images.

The intriguing concept has deservedly been met with interest, and it even won the team behind it a nine month grant of $100,000 from NASA, one of 15 given out by the company’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program. Although much more work is needed to be done, if the project is successful it could be in line to receive a further wad of cash to the sum of $500,000. 

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