KEY POINTS

  • NASA might explore Jupiter's and Saturn's moons using steam-powered robots
  • Steam power will allow the robots to keep the environment clean
  • Hopping will allow the robots to navigate across harsh terrain

NASA is currently looking into the idea of exploring the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn using steam-powered robots. According to the agency, the unique design of the robots will enable them to explore the moons without affecting its environmental conditions.

The concept is currently being studied by NASA at its Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California. The project is known as Steam Propelled Autonomous Retrieval Robot for Ocean Worlds (SPARROW).

For this project, NASA is looking into using robots that are as big as a soccer ball to study Europa and Enceladus, which are the respective moons of Jupiter and Saturn. The robots would work by hopping on the surface using steam-based propulsions.

Although steam power seems like an antiquated idea, especially for space exploration, NASA noted that this technology would enable the SPARROW robots to keep the environment pristine while studying it.

Instead of propelling itself using rocket fuel, the SPARROW robots will travel through the air using steam from melted ice. Aside from keeping the environment clean, NASA noted that hopping across the surface through short thrusts will enable the robots to navigate through the moon’s harsh terrain easily.

As explained by roboticist Gareth Meirion-Griffith, certain features of icy moons could affect the navigational capabilities of landers. For instance, Europa is known to have penitents, which are long blades of ice. According to Meirion-Griffith, these features could prevent traditional robotic rovers from moving.

“The terrain on Europa is likely highly complex,” the roboticist explained in a statement. “It could be porous, it might be riddled with crevasses, there might be meters-high penitents that would stop most robots in their tracks. But SPARROW has total terrain agnosticism; it has complete freedom to travel across an otherwise inhospitable terrain.”

Currently, the SPARROW project is in phase 1, which was awarded by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts in 2018. During this phase, the scientists involved in the project were able to work out the necessary technology in order to operate the robot.

“From this, and related propulsion calculations, we were able to determine that a single long hop would be more efficient than several smaller hops,” Meirion-Griffith stated.

SPARROW Robots In this artist's concept, a SPARROW robot uses steam propulsion to hop away from its lander home base to explore an icy moon's surface. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech