A Robot Will Soon Explore Jupiter's Frozen Ocean Moon
Thu, February 2, 2023

A Robot Will Soon Explore Jupiter's Frozen Ocean Moon

BRUIE is set to explore Jupiter's Europa soon / Photo Credit: muratart (via Shutterstock)


Last November 2019, scientists and engineers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory field tested BRUIE (Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration) below the ice of eastern Antarctica, reported David W. Brown of New York City-based newspaper The New York Times. Operated remotely, the robot was built to “crawl along the underside of sea ice and sea shelves.” The tests have the long-term goal of seeking evidence of life under the ice sheet of Jupiter’s Europa, the planet’s ocean moon, which is covered by a thick frozen shell. Underneath that ice is three times more liquid water than all the oceans on Earth. 

It will be years before a spacecraft will land on Europa, which was closely studied by NASA’s Galileo in the 1990s. The next visitor to the moon will be the Europa Clipper, slated to launch no sooner than 2025. Any future for a lander to visit Europa is unlikely, but this doesn’t hinder NASA’s engineers and scientists from developing technologies for such a mission. Kevin Peter Hand, the project’s science lead from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explained, “Getting a vehicle like the buoyant rover and other submersibles in the ocean of Europa is the long-term vision for what we hope to one day accomplish.” 

BRUIE has been in development since 2017, a rover that is more than an axle equipped with two wheels. It can float, with the sea pressing it against the underside of the ice shelf to collect data using its sensors. During its field tests below the ice of O’Brien Bay near Casey station, BRUIE managed to endure frigid three-hour deployments. A fourth test kept the robot submerged for 42 hours and 32 minutes. The project’s lead manager, Andy Klesh, operated the rover using a laptop. It can also be piloted via satellite connection but mechanical engineer Dan Berisford fed it a thin yellow tether. BRUIE revealed an alien Antarctica—lifeless. 

On Europa, the rover will explore its ocean, crawling along the belly of the moon’s icy shell. Undersea rovers need to be non-invasive. Technologist Daniel Arthur stated, “While the thrusters of a normal underwater remote-operated vehicle can jet-blast delicate algaes off the bottom of ice sheets during close encounters, BRUIE gently tiptoes beneath them.” He added that power will be scarce on Europa, and they also don’t want a propeller to obliterate humankind’s possible first encounter with extraterrestrial life.