The world beneath Antarctica's ice presents dangerous challenges to the scientists looking to study it. The temperature is far below freezing, the ice can trap divers and very little light penetrates the frozen cover. Considering that inhospitable environment, the Camp Haskell team decided to pass on the diver: This was a job for the robot.
Yesterday, the scientists at Camp Haskell took their autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) for its first swim, confirming the operational capacity needed for future missions. The AUV, named UBC-Gavia, has a range of several miles, and can measure the speed of ocean currents, the salinity of water and map the underside of Antarctic ice.
Getting the robot under the ice was itself no small feat, as the scientists needed to build their own hot water drill, from scratch, for boring beneath the frozen crust.
So far, only a handful of AUV have managed to travel beneath the ice and return safely. In 2005, the group AutoSub Under Ice lost a AUV, a disaster that cost millions of dollars and years of research.
Should UBC-Gavia manage to succeed on its forthcoming mission as resoundingly as it did during yesterday's test, it would not only provide a wealth of new information about the sea on the bottom of the world, but would enter an elite group of AUVs that managed to swim beneath the Antarctic ice, and return to tell the tale.