Steampunk space exploration? Icy moon robot could run on steam power.

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2020-06-30 13:29:24

A conceptual robot being investigated at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) would release soccer ball-sized machines to hop on the surface and fly through the air, using steam produced by melting ice.

The early-stage idea is called Steam-Propelled Autonomous Retrieval Robot for Ocean Worlds (SPARROW). On an icy moon such as Jupiter’s Europa or Saturn’s Enceladus, SPARROW could potentially travel several miles in the moon’s low-gravity environment — with no thick atmosphere to slow it down.

“The terrain on Europa is likely highly complex,” Gareth Meirion-Griffith, JPL roboticist and lead researcher of the concept, said in a JPL statement. Examples of the challenges a robot like SPARROW may encounter include crevasses, porous and treacherous ice, or penitentes, long blades of ice that typically form at high latitudes on Earth. SPARROW, however, could navigate these obstacles, Meirion-Griffith added. “It has complete freedom to travel across an otherwise inhospitable terrain.”

SPARROW received Phase I funding from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, which specializes in technology that would push the bounds of traditional design, in 2018, allowing the design team to explore ideas and advance the technology readiness level of the mission for spaceflight. SPARROW’s team could propose a follow-on Phase II study for further development, too.

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