NASA Underwater Space Robot Could Find Alien Life On Jupiter's Moon

A little robot on wheels could help find life on an ice-covered Jupiter moon, and it's being put through its paces in Antarctica by Australian scientists.

Experts have identified Europa, one of Jupiter's 79 moons, as a possible spot to discover alien life. It's covered in a thick crust of ice, thought to be up to 25 kilometres thick in points, but NASA scientists are "almost certain" there is a saltwater ocean beneath its frosty exterior.

"Europa may be the most promising place in our solar system to find present-day environments suitable for some form of life beyond Earth," according to NASA.

Abundant liquid water, energy and the right chemical elements make Europa one of the best places in the solar system to seek present-day life beyond Earth.
The NASA robot, to be tested in Antarctica. Image: Australian Antarctic Division

To prepare for that, NASA is currently testing an under-ice robot which it could deploy to Europa on future missions. For now, the equipment will be heading to Antarctica for trial runs.

Engineers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory are set to be based at Australia's Casey research station, around 4000 kilometres due south of Perth, for test runs this summer.



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"We will trial the endurance of the rover, particularly how long the batteries can last in extreme field conditions and how it handles a variety of terrain,” NASA engineer Dr Andy Klesh said.

The robot is described as a "buoyant rover", like those used for Mars rover missions, but with a couple of important differences -- namely, instead of large all-terrain wheels to navigate the rocky surfaces of foreign worlds, this one has wheels that are designed to stick to the underside of the thick Europa ice crust.

Scientists say Europa "may be the most promising place in our solar system" to find alien life. Image: Australian Antarctic Division

"The rover is unique in that it uses buoyancy to stick to the underside of the ice and move upside-down using wheels, so it can get up close to the ice-water interface for sensitive measurements," Klesh said.

"The robot can also stay in the one spot for long periods without having to expend energy like a submarine does."

After being trialled already in the Arctic and in Alaska, Antarctica will be the next test run for the Europa rover. A planned 2025 space mission to Europa could carry this rover onboard.

The 2025 mission to Europa will search for alien life. Image: Australian Antarctic Division

"Once there, it will take orbital measurements of the moon’s surface, to help identify landing sites and understand the global ice dynamics and composition," the Australian Antarctic Division said in a statement.

"If found suitable, the under-ice robot being tested in Antarctica this summer will be considered for a future mission to the planet."