An artist's rendering of Mason Peck's soft-robotic rover, or ‘roboeel’, designed to enable amphibious exploration of gas-giant moons like Europa. It resembles a squid, with tentacle-like structures that serve as electrodynamic 'power scavengers' to harvest power from locally changing magnetic fields.NASA/Cornell University/NSF
If you want to explore an ocean on a distant moon, you're going to need a robot -- and one able to provide power for itself. That's exactly what a team from Cornell University has dreamed up. "Roboeel" is a new robot able to propel and power itself, and Nasa appears to be on board; the space agency has awarded the idea a phase one spot on its Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) programme, and $100,000 (£65,000) to develop the technology.
"Roboeel" is designed specifically to explore giant moons like Jupiter's icy satellite Europa. It is believed that vast oceans lie under the cold crust of that moon -- in 2013 the Hubble telescope captured what looked like 200km tall jets of water bursting from Europa's surface -- and maybe even life.
But among the problems with getting a closer look at this intriguing world is power; Jupiter receives 25 percent less sunlight than Earth, putting traditional solar panel designs at a severe disadvantage. In 2013, Nasa also decided to cancel its Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator (ASRG) project, which would have delivered plutonium-based power systems for missions to Sun-poor environs including polar regions and liquid landscapes, like the lake on Saturn's moon Titan.
"Roboeel" is designed to get around the issue by using magnetic fields, and not the Sun, as its power source. The underwater rover would use its "tentacle-like" appendages as electrodynamic tethers to capture energy from shifting magnetic fields on Europa, writes Mason Peck, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell, in the proposal.
"The bio-inspired technologies we propose bypass the need to power rovers with limited-lifetime batteries, large solar arrays, or nuclear power," Peck says. "Beyond addressing issues of power, this rover concept also bypasses the difficulties of typical mechanisms in fluid through uniquely suited soft robotics."
This energy powers the robot, including a system it uses to conduct electrolysis on surrounding water to produce H2 and O2 gases. It stores these gases and intermittently ignites them to expand various chambers and propel itself through the water. "Optionally, the skin of the robot will be a stretchable, electroluminescent display for illuminating the local marine environment, to enable underwater imaging," continues Peck, former chief technologist at Nasa. "This suite of bio-inspired technology represents a tremendous leap forward in what we understand a rover to be."