Design Engineering

NASA tests robotic ice-breaking prototypes for missions to ocean worlds


Automation NASA Robotics space exploration

These robotic systems would face cryogenic temperatures and rugged terrain and have to meet strict planetary protection requirements.

Each and every space mission presents its own unique challenges. When it comes to exploring icy planetary bodies or moons, NASA has developed a new set of robotic prototypes to help with just that.

NASA robotics testing

A robotic claw, one of several innovative tools developed at JPL for exploring icy, ocean worlds like Europa. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.

In a project that spans over several years, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in California has developed some of the latest technologies that will make space exploration that much easier.

Projects include a subsurface probe that burrows through miles of ice while taking samples along the way; robotic arms that unfold to reach faraway objects; and a projectile launcher for reaching even more distant samples. One of the main objectives of these projects is sample collection.

The systems are designed to be used in extreme environments — temperatures can reach hundreds of degrees below freezing. Rover wheels might cross ice that behaves like sand. On Europa, Juper’s icy moon, surfaces are bathed in radiation.


“Robotic systems would face cryogenic temperatures and rugged terrain and have to meet strict planetary protection requirements,” said Hari Nayar, who leads the robotics group that oversaw the research. “One of the most exciting places we can go is deep into subsurface oceans — but doing so requires new technologies that don’t exist yet.”

One of the prototypes, a “melt probe” designed by Brian Wilcox, an engineering fellow at JPL, will be used to melt through snow and ice to explore subsurface regions. Wilcox was required to think outside the box when it came to using heat efficiently to melt the ice. He created a capsule insulated by a vacuum, much like a thermos bottle. In this prototype, energy is retained from a chunk of heat-source plutonium as the probe uses a rotating sawblade to cut through the ice while throw ice chips back into the probe’s body, where they would be melted by the plutonium and pumped out behind it.

Researchers also explored using robotic arms to help reach samples. On Mars, NASA’s landers have never extended beyond 6.5 to 8 feet (2 to 2.5 meters) from their base. For a longer reach, you need to build a longer arm, which is how the team came up with a folding boom arm. Unfolded, the arm can extend almost 33 feet (10 meters). For targets that are even farther away, a projectile launcher was developed that can fire a sampling mechanism up 164 feet (50 meters).

The arm and the launcher could be used in conjunction with an ice-gripping claw, which could someday have a coring drill attached to it. After being deployed, the claw could anchor itself using heated prongs that melt into the ice and secure its grip. That ensures that a drill’s bit is able to penetrate and collect a sample.

These prototypes are in the early testing phase, with NASA considering a second development phase.Those efforts could eventually produce the technologies that might fly on future missions to the outer solar system.

All these technologies were developed as part of the Ocean Worlds Mobility and Sensing study, a research project funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington.


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