Design

This Space Rover Drives on the Underside of Ice


Bruie (Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration)

Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

Bruie (Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration)

NASA has completed early testing for a satellite-controlled space rover that can drive on the underside of ice. The floating two-wheeler is an early precursor to a robot that could eventually be sent to explore icy planets and moons, such as Jupiter’s Europa.

“We think this truly was the first time ever that an underwater, under-ice, untethered vehicle has been operated through satellite link,” NASA astrobiologist Kevin Hand says in the video below, which shows the device crawling along under a frozen Alaskan lake:

Astrobiologists hope this robot, dubbed Bruie (Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration), will prove useful in their search for extraterrestrial life, which presumably needs water.

Space rovers are known for unusual modes of locomotion. Existing models, including the robots Spirit and Opportunity, can traverse impact craters, cracks, cliffs, and jagged terrain. The Curiosity, a newer WALL•E-esque rover, today celebrated its first Martian year on the Red Planet by extending an arm and using a camera to snap a robot selfie. (One Martian year equals 687 earth days.)

Bruie (Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration)Courtesy NASA/JPL-CaltechBruie (Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration)

There’s also the Athlete, a six-limbed flying space rover that looks like the craziest buffet cart ever. The limbs have wheels for rolling over flat surfaces—but those wheels can be locked, allowing the rover “to walk out of excessively soft, obstacle laden, steep, or otherwise extreme terrain,” according to NASA.

Meanwhile, scientists in Germany have developed a prototype for another space rover that can both roll and crawl. Theirs is modeled after an unusually athletic Moroccan spider, which takes a running start and hurtles forward into a series of high-speed cartwheels. If we do eventually find aliens, it’ll be interesting to see how they move.

Cwinter
Winter is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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