According to some hypotheses, the oceans beneath the surface of the moons of gas giants are among the most promising places to look for extraterrestrial life. NASA has funded a project to develop a swarm of small, floating robots to explore these oceans.
Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus are essentially large balls of ice with oceans under a thick, frozen outer shell. Scientists have long speculated that conditions in these waters may be the best candidates for the existence of alien life. The Europa Clipper mission is due to undertake a series of missions in the 2030s to investigate Europa for its ability to support life and gather enough information to determine where to land the reentry vehicle in the next mission.
The new concept now allows research to be carried out using a fleet of floating robots the size of smartphones. NASA has allocated funding to develop the project, known as Sensing With Independent Micro-Swimmers (SWIM), as part of NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) programme.
The proposed mission should be an interesting one. First, a landing platform would be lowered onto the moon's icy crust and then a probe would be deployed that would use heat from a nuclear battery to tunnel through the ice to the ocean. Once there, the probe will release about 50 SWIM robots, which will begin to explore the waters on their own.
Each SWIM robot is wedge-shaped, about 12 cm long and equipped with propulsion, an onboard computer, ultrasound communication and a suite of sensors for temperature, salinity, acidity, pressure and chemicals.
SWIM's swarm will 'communicate' with a ground vehicle on the surface of the moon, which will act as a repeater, relaying data from the robot back to Earth and receiving new instructions from the mission control team.
As interesting as such an idea is, it remains a concept for now and may never materialise. But there is a minimal chance, its developer Ethan Schaller of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has received $600,000 in Phase 2 funding from NIAC to continue development, allowing the team to build and test prototype robots over the next two years.