This illustration shows the NASA cryobot concept called Probe using Radioisotopes for Icy Moons Exploration (PRIME) deploying tiny wedge-shaped robots – collectively known as Sensing With Independent Micro-Swimmers (SWIM) – into the ocean miles below a lander on the frozen surface of an ocean world.

Nasa wants to use swimming robots to detect alien life

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Nasa is funding a project to develop a swarm of ‘cellphone-size robots’ that could pass through the water beneath the icy shell of several moons in the Solar System, looking for signs of alien life.

Nasa and its Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have awarded Ethan Schaler a Phase II funding grant for a project that aims to build a swarm of small swimming robots that could be sent to places that humans and massive robots cannot reach, such as Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s moon Enceladus. 

Packed inside a narrow ice-melting probe that would tunnel through the frozen crust, the tiny robots would be released underwater, swimming far from their mothercraft to look for signs of alien life. 

“My idea is, where can we take miniaturised robotics and apply them in interesting new ways for exploring our solar system?” said Schaler, a robotics mechanical engineer at JPL and the leader of the project. 

“With a swarm of small swimming robots, we are able to explore a much larger volume of ocean water and improve our measurements by having multiple robots collecting data in the same area.”

Schaler's Sensing With Independent Micro-Swimmers (SWIM) concept was recently awarded $600,000 (£493,000) in Phase II funding from the Nasa Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. The grant will allow him and his team to make and test 3D-printed prototypes of the swimming robots over the next two years.

In the Sensing With Independent Micro-Swimmers (SWIM) concept, illustrated here, dozens of small robots would descend through the icy shell of a distant moon via a cryobot – depicted at left – to the ocean below.

In the Sensing With Independent Micro-Swimmers (SWIM) concept, illustrated here, dozens of small robots would descend through the icy shell of a distant moon via a cryobot – depicted at left – to the ocean below. / NASA/JPL-Caltech

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Compared to other robots designed for planetary ocean exploration, Schaler’s mini-swimmers would be much smaller and able to be loaded compactly into an ice probe. They would add to the probe’s scientific reach and could increase the likelihood of detecting evidence of life while assessing potential habitability on distant ocean-bearing celestial bodies.

The early-stage designs envision the building of wedge-shaped robots, each about 5 inches (12 cm) long and about 3 to 5 cubic inches (60 to 75 cubic cm) in volume. About four dozen of them could fit in a 4-inch-long (10-cm-long) section of a cryobot 10 inches (25 cm) in diameter, taking up just about 15 per cent of the science payload volume.

The cryobot would be connected via a communications tether to a surface-based lander that would be the point of contact with mission controllers on Earth, meaning the robot would have a limited exploratory range. 

“What if, after all those years it took to get into an ocean, you come through the ice shell in the wrong place? What if there’s signs of life over there but not where you entered the ocean?” said SWIM team scientist Samuel Howell. 

“By bringing these swarms of robots with us, we’d be able to look ‘over there’ to explore much more of our environment than a single cryobot would allow.”

Howell compared the concept to Nasa’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, which supports the agency’s Perseverance rover on the Red Planet, but with "a bunch" of robots, instead of just one. 

Additionally, the SWIM robots could “flock” together in a behaviour inspired by fish or birds, thereby reducing errors in data through their overlapping measurements. That group data could also show gradients: temperature or salinity, for example, increasing across the swarm’s collective sensors and pointing toward the source of the signal they’re detecting.

“If there are energy gradients or chemical gradients, that’s how life can start to arise. We would need to get upstream from the cryobot to sense those,” Schaler said.

Each robot would have its own propulsion system, onboard computer, and ultrasound communications system, along with simple sensors for temperature, salinity, acidity and pressure. 

Nasa is also currently working on the Europa Clipper mission, planned for a 2024 launch, which will gather detailed information about Jupiter's moon, paving the way for a possible future mission that includes the SWIM robots. In addition, Nasa has also recently announced its plans to launch an investigation into UFOs as part of its drive toward detecting alien life. 

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