May 28, 2023

NASA unveils a robot that will be used to find life on Saturn’s moon | space

A robot that looks and moves like a snake is being tested at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The unique object will eventually be sent to the ocean, hidden under the icy crust of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, to search for signs of extraterrestrial life. The autonomous robot, called the Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor (EELS), is meticulously designed to go places no one has ever seen before.

The search for extraterrestrial life is nothing new. Many efforts have already been made for these investigations, such as investments in drilling rocks on Mars. However, in this new work, in addition to the new format, the JPL team sought to develop equipment that works on its own, without human intervention and operates in real time, different from the existing equipment.

There are many other possibilities for life that could exist in the oceans within the icy moons of gas giants, or perhaps similarly formed dwarf planets. For this, a device is needed that can not only pass through this environment but also access the inner periphery in the first place. Europa, the first discovered marine moon, is thought to have a crust kilometers thick, which makes drilling a daunting challenge – and that’s where EELS comes in.

“It has the ability to go places other robots can’t go. While some robots are better at one type of terrain or another, it has the potential to go places that other robots can’t go,” said Matthew Robinson of JPL, EELS project manager. in the current situation. “When you go places where you don’t know what you’re going to find, you want to send a risk-aware, versatile bot that’s ready to face uncertainty — and able to make decisions on its own.”

One of the tasks that the specialists thought of was the possibility of the equipment moving between the narrow passages between the geysers, the small holes from which the jets of hot water and steam from Enceladus shoot, due to its thin and flexible shape.

As the ongoing tests have shown, this very challenging project has resulted in a highly adaptable robot. EELS can choose a safe path through a variety of terrain on Earth, the Moon, and beyond, including rolling sand and ice, rock walls, steep craters for rovers, underground lava tubes and labyrinthine spaces within glaciers.

Slithers like a snake

According to JPL, the prototype began construction in 2019 and has been undergoing constant revisions since then. Today it weighs 100 kilograms and is four meters long. It is made up of 10 identical parts that rotate using threads for traction and traction.

EELS is designed to independently detect its environment, calculate risks, travel, and collect data using scientific tools yet to be identified. When something goes wrong, the goal is for the robot to recover on its own, without human help.

The robot has already been tested in sand, snow, and ice environments, from the Mars Yard (a space that simulates Mars), at JPL, to a “robot playground” set up at a ski resort in the Snowy Mountains of Southern California, even at a local indoor ice rink. “There are dozens of textbooks on how to design a four-wheeled vehicle, but no book on how to design an autonomous snake robot to boldly go where no robot has gone before. We have to write to us,” said Hiroo Ono, EELS principal investigator at the Propulsion Laboratory. Jet, “This is what we’re doing now.”

In addition to searching for extraterrestrial life, EELS could one day explore parts of the Moon or asteroids that other rovers can’t reach, and perhaps also search caves or glaciers on Earth. The goal is to have a robot ready to go by the end of 2024. While the team can achieve this ambitious goal, EELS will likely have to wait a long time before going on a mission, since a trip to Enceladus is not on NASA’s schedule for the next decade.