Swarm of small sim robots could search for life in distant worlds - Parabolic Arc

Swarm of small sim robots could search for life in distant worlds – Parabolic Arc

In the Sensing With Independent Micro-Swimmers (SWIM) concept, illustrated here, dozens of small robots would descend through the icy shell of a distant moon via a cryobot – pictured left – to the sea below. The project has received funding from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program. (Credits: NASA / JPL-Caltech)

A concept under development at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory would allow potential planetary missions to hunt for interesting clues in subterranean oceans.

PASADENA, California (NASA PR) – One day, a swarm of mobile-sized robots can walk through the water under the spleen-thick icy shell of Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s moon Enceladus, in search of signs of alien life. Packed inside a narrow ice-melting probe that would tunnel through the frozen crust, the little robots would be released underwater and swim far from their mother craft to take the measure of a new world.

That is the vision Ethan Schalera robotics engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, whose concept Sensing With Independent Micro-Swimmers (SWIM) was recently awarded $ 600,000 in Phase II funding from NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. The funding, which follows his 2021 award of $ 125,000 in Phase I NIAC funding to study feasibility and design options, will allow him and his team to make and test 3D-printed prototypes over the next two years.

An important innovation is that Schaler’s mini swimmers would be much smaller than other concepts for planets for exploring planets, which means that many can be charged compactly in an ice probe. They would increase the probe’s scientific reach and could increase the likelihood of detecting evidence of life while assessing potential habitability on a distant sea-bearing celestial body.

“My idea is, where can we take miniaturized robotics and apply them in new interesting ways to explore our solar system?” in Schaler. “With a swarm of small sim robots, we can explore a much larger volume of seawater and improve our measurements by having multiple robots collecting data in the same area.”

This illustration shows NASA’s cryobot concept called Probe using Icy Moons Exploration (PRIME) radioisotopes using small wedge-shaped robots – commonly known as Sensing With Independent Micro-Swimmers (SWIM) – in the ocean miles below a lander on the frozen surface of a sea world. (Credits: NASA / JPL-Caltech)

Not yet part of any NASA mission, the early SWIM concept envisions wedge-shaped robots, each about 5 inches (12 centimeters) long and about 3 to 5 cubic inches (60 to 75 cubic centimeters) in volume. About four dozen of them could fit in a 4-inch-long (10-centimeter-long) section of a cryobot 10 inches (25 centimeters) in diameter and take up about 15% of the scientific payload volume. This would leave plenty of room for more powerful but less mobile scientific instruments that can collect data during the long journey through the ice and provide stationary measurements in the ocean.

The Europa Clipper The mission, scheduled for launch in 2024, will begin collecting detailed science over several flights with a large set of instruments when it arrives at the Jovian moon in 2030. Looking further into the future, cryobot concepts are being developed to explore such marine worlds through NASA’s Scientific Exploration Subsurface Access Mechanism for Europe (SESAME) programs, as well as through other NASA technology development programs.

Better together

No matter how ambitious the SWIM concept is, its intention would be to reduce risk while improving science. The cryobot would be connected via a communication tether to the surface-based lander, which in turn would be the point of contact with mission controllers on Earth. The tethered approach, together with limited space to include a large propulsion system, means that the cryobot would probably not be able to venture much beyond the point where ice meets the sea.

“What if, after all these years it took to get into an ocean, you come through the ice shell in the wrong place? What if there are signs of life over there but not where you got into the ocean?” said the SWIM team researchers Samuel Howell from JPL, who also works at Europa Clipper. “By bringing with us these swarms of robots, we could see ‘over there’ to explore much more of our environment than a single cryobot would allow.”

Howell compared the concept to NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, the airborne companion to the agency’s Perseverance rover on the red planet. “The helicopter extends the range of the rover, and so do the images it sends back context to help the rover understand how to explore your environment, he said. “If you had a gang instead of a helicopter, you would know a lot more about your environment. That’s the idea behind SWIM.”

SWIM would also allow data to be collected from the cryobot’s flaming hot core battery, which the probe would rely on to melt a downward path through the ice. Once in the ocean, the heat from the battery would create a thermal bubble, slowly melt the ice above and potentially cause reactions that could change the chemistry of the water, Schaler said.

In addition, SWIM robots could “flock” together in a behavior inspired by fish or birds, thereby reducing errors in data through their overlapping measurements. This group data can also show gradients: temperature or salinity, for example, increasing across the collective sensors of the swarm and pointing to the source of the signal they detect.

“If there are energy gradients or chemical gradients, this is how life can begin to arise. We would need to come upstream from the cryobot to feel them, says Schaler.

Each robot would have its own propulsion system, built-in computer and ultrasonic communication system, along with simple sensors for temperature, salinity, acidity and pressure. Chemical sensors to monitor biomarkers – signs of life – will be included in Schaler’s Phase II study.

More about NIAC

NIAC funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, which is responsible for developing the new transversal technology and capabilities that the agency needs. The program promotes exploration by funding early-stage studies to evaluate technologies that can support future aerospace missions. Researchers from US authorities, industry and academia with grand ideas can make suggestions.


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