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NASA plans to send swimming robots to habitable ocean worlds

Most nearby planets thought to be habitable are completely covered in water. With many taking years to get to, NASA has secured funding for a project that will help us get a look into their depths.

As humans come to grips with the possibility of one day living on another planet, whether willingly or out of necessity, space experts are wasting no time trying to locate our options.

Mars is – by the universe’s standards – literally our next-door neighbour, only taking seven months to travel to from Earth. NASA’s Perseverance has yet to uncover evidence of past or present life during its Mars exploration, but it is believed that water might’ve flown there once, even if it no longer does. For now, life on Mars is survived by a Matt Damon blockbuster.

Meanwhile, a handful of other worlds and moons have been deemed habitable thanks to their abundance of water, but the key problem is that they’re completely submerged in the stuff. They have entire oceans, some bigger than Earth’s, and many of which are icy.

Since we can’t launch ourselves out there to get a better look, a new project at NASA has secured US $60,000 in funding to study the feasibility of sending miniature, swimming robots to investigate for us.


Why does NASA care about planets covered by oceans?

Because water is life, of course.

Scientists believe these liquid-covered space spheres are extremely similar to the state that Earth was in around the time that life first began, because the relationship between rocks and water creates the perfect environment to support it.

When water seeps into cracks in the rocky ocean floor, it becomes hot and rich in chemicals. This ‘chemical stew’ is spit back out and allows microbes in the surrounding water to feed off its energy. Larger organisms eat these microbes and grow larger through chemosynthesis, rather than photosynthesis which requires sunlight and an atmosphere.

In 1977, scientists discovered this has been happening at the deepest part of Earth’s Pacific Ocean for billions of years. To this day, tube worms can be seen feeding on the chemosynthetic microbes expelled from hydrothermal vents, where temperatures are a scorching 350 degrees Celsius (660F).

Given that organisms can thrive in the most extreme environments on Earth, is it possible that microbes and other larger organisms are doing the same in faraway ocean-covered planets? That’s exactly the question NASA’s latest project is hoping to answer.

Credit: NASA


What will the NASA’s robots be able to do?

The closest of the habitable ‘ocean worlds’ is Europa, the moon of Jupiter, and would take about six years to get to. NASA’s Europa Clipper is already scheduled for a flyby before the year 2030 and will hopefully be able to gather ice crystal samples as they shoot out through cracks in the moon’s icy surface.

Though these samples will be extremely valuable goods for NASA, landing on the surface of the ice and peeking at the water beneath is the goal. If a feasible gameplan for this project is created, here’s what NASA’s team says could happen.

After being hurled through space and arriving at their destination, the lander that tiny robots rode in on will latch onto Europa’s icy surface. The lander will then use a radioactively heated probe to melt a 25cm wide hole into the ice, clearing a depth of up to hundreds or thousands of metres.

With an ocean pathway made, the tiny robots, known as ‘independent micro-swimmers’ will then be released into the water to explore, all the while communicating findings back to the probe via soundwaves. This data will then be passed to the lander through a wire and transmitted back to the Earth.

After the longest game of Telephone ever played, NASA would have information about life (or lack thereof) in neighbouring ocean worlds.

For now, another prospective ocean world on the radar is Enceladus, the moon of Saturn, but it would take 80-100 years even with the best technology available. Considering that, a humbler six-year journey to Europa seems like the most viable option.

Let’s hope the big brains at NASA can conjure up a plan ASAP. The universe might be ever expanding, but most of our patience levels are not!