NASA concept proposes swarm of swimming robots to explore alien oceans

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Subsurface oceans on gas giant moons are some of the most promising places to look for life beyond Earth. NASA has now awarded funding for a project to develop a swarm of small swimming robots that would explore these alien oceans for signs of extraterrestrial life.

Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus are basically big icy balls, with global oceans underneath a thick frozen outer shell. Scientists have long hypothesized that conditions in those waters could be prime candidates for harboring alien life, with the Europa Clipper mission set to perform a series of close flybys in the 2030s to search for evidence of such.

But now, a new concept could investigate up close using a fleet of smartphone-sized swimming robots. NASA has awarded funding to develop the project, known as Sensing With Independent Micro-Swimmers (SWIM), as part of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.

The proposed mission would be a fascinating one. First a lander would set down on the icy crust of one of these moons, before deploying a probe that uses heat from its nuclear battery to melt a tunnel through the ice to the ocean below. Once there, the probe would release about 50 SWIM robots to begin exploring the frigid waters independently.

Each SWIM robot is wedge-shaped, measures about 12 cm (5 in) long, and is equipped with its own propulsion system, onboard computer, ultrasound communications, and a suite of sensors for temperature, salinity, acidity, pressure and chemicals.

An illustration of the entire SWIM mission, including a lander on the surface of Europa or Enceladus, a probe that melts its way through the ice, and a swarm of swimming robots that are released into the ocean below to search for signs of life

NASA/JPL-Caltech

These robots could move through the water like a school of fish, collecting data to search for biomarkers of life. Interestingly, they could measure gradients of things like temperature or salinity in real time by comparing readings from robots at the head of the pack and those at the tail end.

The SWIM swarm would communicate with the lander component on the surface that would act as a relay, transmitting data from the robots back to Earth and new instructions from the mission team to the robots.

Other aquatic robots have been proposed for exploring extraterrestrial oceans, including a squid-like rover on Europa or a submarine to study the liquid-methane lakes of Saturn’s moon Titan. But the team says that the SWIM design would expand the amount of ocean that could be explored.

As intriguing as the idea is, for now it remains a concept and may never come to pass. But there’s a chance – its designer, Ethan Schaler of NASA JPL, was awarded US$600,000 in Phase II funding from NIAC to continue development, which will allow the team to build and test prototypes of the robots over the next two years.

Source: NASA JPL

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