NASA’s ‘Underwater Drones’ Could Someday Explore Ocean Of Jupiter’s Moon Europa

Beyond Earth, there are actually plenty of places to look for water and ice. Right now, Saturn’s moon Titan, which has methane rivers and lakes, is the only place in the solar system known to have surface liquid other than Earth. However, researchers and scientists believe that there are places that harbor subsurface oceans of water.

According to NASA, the Cassini spacecraft discovered a global subsurface ocean on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The Inquisitr recently reported on the possibility of the dwarf planet Pluto having an icy subsurface ocean as well. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has a chart in which nine potential ocean worlds are identified (including Enceladus and Pluto).

Out of all of the ocean worlds, Jupiter’s moon Europa is one of the most interesting. One of Jupiter’s four largest moons, which were originally discovered by Galileo Galilei, Europa is thought to be home to a very large subsurface ocean. Per NASA, it may contain twice the amount of water as Earth’s oceans.

Many have long wanted to send a lander to Europa in order to get a look at its potential ocean. However, a few obstacles do exist. Two that are frequently cited are finding a way to drill through the moon’s icy surface and having a spacecraft that can withstand its radiation. Although many questions might still remain, researchers are reportedly working on something that might help with a Europa mission someday.

In a recent press release, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory discussed how “researchers from NASA and other institutions” are working on creating “artificial intelligence for submersibles.” According to the statement, other members of the research team come from Caltech, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Remote Sensing Solutions, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. The press release also discusses how important “robotic submersibles” have become for conducting research on oceans.

“While satellites can study the ocean surface, their signals can’t penetrate the water. A better way to study what’s below is to look beneath yourself — or send a robot in your place.”

According to the press release, the team recently tested a fleet of half a dozen “coordinated drones,” which were used to analyze Monterey Bay. It is said that the drones “roved for miles,” searching for “temperature and salinity” alterations and sensing variations in ocean activity.

In an ongoing effort, this new technology is being developed for the purpose of sniffing for signals of life beneath water. It is explained that the team hopes that it will not only benefit our understanding of marine life on Earth, but the goal is for this technology to one day be used to explore the oceans of moons such as Europa. The press release explains that moons such as Europa, especially if their oceans are proven to be real, are among the most popular places to search for life beyond Earth.

In the press release, Steve Chien, the leader of the Artificial Intelligence Group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, explained that there is further work to be done.

“Autonomous drones are important for ocean research, but today’s drones don’t make decisions on the fly,” Chien said in the statement. “In order to study unpredictable ocean phenomena, we need to develop submersibles that can navigate and make decisions on their own, and in real-time. Doing so would help us understand our oceans — and maybe those on other planets.”

Essentially, the goal is to make a smarter type of underwater drone. If the researchers are triumphant in their efforts, NASA’s press release explains how these autonomous underwater drones could map their own courses, based on what they find in their surroundings while immersed in water.

Currently, it is explained in the press release how, from shore, forecasts of ocean features are being sent to the drones in order to help with the plotting of their routes. Brooks Hays of UPI describes how most submersibles in today’s age are “preprogrammed” and their research abilities are restricted.

Andrew Thompson, assistant professor of environmental science and engineering at Caltech, further explained the team’s future goals. Thompson stated that the mission is to remove the human invention aspect.

“Our goal is to remove the human effort from the day-to-day piloting of these robots and focus that time on analyzing the data collected.”

Of course, a mission to Europa may still be a ways down the road, with NASA currently setting sometime in the 2020s as the target date. Although it may be a little bit too early to start getting excited, it is certainly interesting to learn that technology such as this is being developed.

[Featured Image by Brady Barrineau/Shutterstock]