Underwater Antarctic robot to explore Jupiter's moon for life

A team of American scientists and engineers in Antarctica are testing a robot they plan to one day send into space in the search for life.

The NASA-funded project is linking up with a New Zealand research team on the Ross Ice Shelf. The Kiwis are drilling through more than 300 metres of ice to study the ocean underneath, a perfect opportunity for the Americans to test their prototype.

Astrobiologist Britney Schmidt and her team from the Georgia Tech in Atlanta have built Icefin, a 3.5-metre-long autonomous vehicle custom-built to dive under ice and reveal what lives in the ocean beneath. It's equipped with sensors, cameras, sonar and as much scientific technology as they're able to squeeze on board.

"It has the capabilities to travel and navigate on its own, but we also can take control of the vehicle with the controller," Icefin lead engineer Matt Meister told Newshub.

The controller comes from a Playstation, and that gives a clue about the age of the team. The oldest is 35 while all the rest are in their 20s.

There's a good reason for that; in 20 to 30 years, a version of Icefin will be sent into space.

"For NASA one of the big questions is, are we alone? Is there life out there?" Assistant Professor Schmidt said.

"One of the most interesting places we think about exploring that question is a moon of Jupiter called Europa."

Astrobiologist Britney Schmidt
Astrobiologist Britney Schmidt. Photo credit: Newshub.

She believes studying the oceans under Antarctica's ice shelves could unlock a mystery 588 million kilometres away: what's beneath the ice on a moon orbiting the gas giant Jupiter.

"Europa's about the size of the Earth's moon... There's about 100 kilometres, maybe 80 kilometres or so of ocean, and it's covered by somewhere between 10 and 30 kilometres of ice."

That's where this year's research in Antarctica comes in. The next step is to take Icefin onto the Ross Ice Shelf, where it will be lowered through a hole in the ice more than 300 metres deep.

Around the size of France, the Ross Ice Shelf is the largest piece of floating ice on the planet. The ocean underneath is largely unknown to science.

"We'll be looking at the ice ocean processes that are there and going down and seeing the sea floor and seeing the organisms living there," Asst Prof Schmidt said.

"So we're kind of a pseudo Europa explorer in that way. These are things we would love to be able to do one day."

But first they need to get it working under just 3 metres of ice, testing on the sea ice out the front of the American McMurdo Station.

More than $2.2 million has been invested in Icefin, with much of that funding coming from NASA.

"It's an interesting experience, taking your science career and dangling it off of a little tether over the open ocean," Asst Prof Schmidt said.

Icefin lead engineer Matt Meister
Icefin lead engineer Matt Meister. Photo credit: Newshub.

When things go wrong, Mr Meister said it can get pretty stressful for the team.

"It's really easy to jump to the worst conclusions, but a lot of times it's okay to take a step back, a deep breath, and it's usually not that complicated," Mr Meister said.

Life under the Ross Ice Shelf is likely to be simple and sparse, but anything is possible in space.

"It would be pretty cool to see just a giant squid in the middle of Europa or something like that," Mr Meister said.

For now, it's the groundwork in Antarctica which could one day unlock the mystery of whatever is out there.