NASA’s ‘Robotic Eel’ May Be The Key To Exploring Europa

NASA has announced a new group of innovative technologies it may potentially develop, including a robot that takes its design cues from an eel and may represent the key to exploring the icy waters of Europa.

The design for the “robotic eel” comes from the first phase of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, which is intended to examine applying innovative technologies to future aerospace missions. As NASA notes in a press release, the space agency selected 15 different proposals which will each receive a $100,000 grant, allowing awardees to conduct a nine-month-long study to define and begin developing their concepts. If each team’s work meets with success, they can apply for the second phase of the program, which could see NASA fund $500,000 for two additional years of development.

Among the concepts receiving the phase one award this year is a soft-robotic amphibious rover, which is designed to resemble an eel or a squid. The project’s long-term goal is to explore gas-giant moons like Europa, particularly in aquatic regions where conventional power systems would prove woefully inadequate. As Engadget notes, the robot would need to use innovative means to power itself, as even solar panels could be unreliable, so it will be equipped with unusual antenna that NASA says can derive electrical charges from “locally changing magnetic fields.”

The eel-like rover is hardly the first submarine explorer that NASA has proposed sending to another celestial body in the solar system. Earlier this year, NASA examined the concept of sending a submarine drone to explore the icy methane seas of Titan, as the Inquisitr previously reported. The drone, which was also a product of NIAC, would be largely autonomous due to the extreme distance between Titan and Earth, and such a mission, if proven plausible, would be intended for launch in 2040.

Other phase one award winners include a project called Cryogenic Reservoir Inventory by Cost-Effective Kinetically Enhanced Technology (CRICKET) which would use robotic crawlers and bucket-bots to examine permanently darkened regions of other planets, and another program which aims to deploy a system of paired and linked unmanned aerial gliders into the stratosphere. Sailing at different altitudes, these gliders could likely stay aloft for years, possibly taking over the duties of orbital satellite networks at a fraction of the cost, according to NASA.

All of the projects that have been awarded phase one status by NASA remain years, if not decades, from feasibility, however, and it remains to be seen if the eel-like rover could live up to its potential as Europa’s future robotic explorer.

[Image: NASA/Cornell University/NSF]