Categories
Antarctic Regions Australia Drones (Pilotless Planes) Europa (Moon of Jupiter) Extraterrestrial Life Ice Jupiter (Planet) National Aeronautics and Space Administration Robots and Robotics Space and Astronomy Uncategorized

This Robot’s Journey to an Icy Alien Moon Starts Beneath Antarctica

CASEY STATION, Antarctica — Near a nice, big hole in the ice and beneath the stone gray, midday Antarctic summer skies, six Adélie penguins stared at six men toiling with tools. The chasm in the ice might have been an inviting entry to the krill-rich waters below. None of the members of the tuxedoed recon party dove into the hole, a square about six feet across. The risk of leopard seals was just too great.

But had they leapt in, the penguins would have discovered not a seal, but a robot.

In November, scientists and engineers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory successfully field tested Bruie — the “Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration” — beneath the ice of eastern Antarctica. The remotely operated rover was built to crawl along the underside of sea ice and ice shelves. These tests on Earth have a long-term goal of one day seeking evidence of life beneath the thick frozen shell covering Jupiter’s ocean moon of Europa. Beneath that ice is three times more liquid water than can be found in all the oceans on Earth.

[Sign up to get reminders for space and astronomy events on your calendar.]

It will be years before a spacecraft from Earth lands on Europa, which was most closely studied by NASA’s Galileo mission in the 1990s. The next robotic probe to visit that world will be Europa Clipper, scheduled to launch no sooner than 2025. When it arrives some years later, that spacecraft will orbit Jupiter and encounter Europa dozens of times at different angles to thoroughly scan and map the moon, considered one of the best candidates in our solar system to be inhabited by some form of extraterrestrial life.

Any future for a lander visiting the Jovian moon is uncertain. But that hasn’t stopped NASA’s engineers and scientists from developing technologies to aid its mission.

Image
Credit…NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Getting a vehicle like the buoyant rover and other submersibles in the ocean of Europa is the long-term vision for what we hope to one day accomplish,” said Kevin P. Hand, the project’s science lead from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “It’s going to come after Clipper and a lander on the surface. These precursor missions would set the stage for getting through the ice and reaching the ocean.”

Bruie has been in development since 2017. The rover is the marriage of Jules Verne-like inventiveness and the simplest machine possible to build: little more than an axle and two wheels, each about the size of a large pizza.

As its expanded name implies, Bruie floats. The sea presses it against the belly of the ice shelf, and as the rover crawls along, its sensors collect data. During its Antarctic field tests beneath the ice of O’Brien Bay near Casey Station, an Australian base on the eastern part of the continent, the rover successfully endured three frigid three-hour deployments.

A fourth, critical test kept it submerged beneath the ice for 42 hours and 30 minutes. Andy Klesh, the project’s lead engineer, drove the rover using a laptop. While the rover can be piloted via satellite connection, during this mission, Dan Berisford, a mechanical engineer, carefully fed it a thin yellow tether.

The submerged rover crawled slowly but ably. An onboard camera streamed video to the laptop and revealed an Antarctica even more alien than the surface. Except for the curious penguins, the continent is stark and largely lifeless clear to the horizon. But a few feet below, the rover found vast brown webs of sea algae clinging to the ice. Fish would swim up and nibble away at it. Bubbles of oxygen accumulated as photosynthesis pumped away.

The Bruie rover’s view beneath the Antarctic ice.CreditCredit…By Nasa/jpl-Caltech

On Europa, the real action is in its ocean; if at last the Jovian moon does get a rover that could get beneath its surface, it makes sense that the robot would crawl on the underside of its ice shell. The radiation chemistry and geophysics of Europa’s surface might provide a mechanism for providing oxygen for life in its depths.

To study such life, any undersea rover would need to be noninvasive.“While the thrusters of a normal underwater remote-operated vehicle can jet-blast delicate algaes off the bottom of ice sheets during close encounters, Bruie gently tiptoes beneath them,” said Daniel Arthur, a technologist who works with Caltech and the University of Western Australia.

The rover analyzes the ice-ocean interface passively and at consistent distances, drawing little power — especially relative to submarine-type drones. “Power will be in short supply on Europa,” Dr. Arthur said, “and we don’t want a propeller obliterating humanity’s first encounter with extraterrestrial life.”

The ice-ocean interface on Earth is a zone where physics, chemistry, and biology all interact, said Alison Murray, an Antarctic scientist at the Desert Research Institute in Nevada. On our planet, the zone is rich with microorganisms. “We want to understand the habitability of these interfaces as well as the diversity of life that calls them home,” said Dr. Murray. “In both cases, we can better understand whether this interface in the dark waters of Europa might actually be able to support life.”

Dr. Hand hopes that work on devices like Bruie can drive development of robots to explore Earth’s cryosphere, where ice meets oceans.

“It is my hope that exploring Europa’s ocean can serve as a forcing function, from an engineering standpoint, to build those kinds of capabilities to get the same work done on planet Earth,” he said.

Categories
Airlines and Airplanes Drones (Pilotless Planes) Federal Aviation Administration Regulation and Deregulation of Industry Transportation Transportation Department (US) Uncategorized

The F.A.A. Wants to Start Tracking Drones’ Locations

The Federal Aviation Administration proposed wide-sweeping regulations on Thursday that would require that all but the tiniest drones incorporate technology that would enable them to be tracked at all times while flying in United States airspace.

“Remote ID technologies will enhance safety and security by allowing the F.A.A., law enforcement and federal security agencies to identify drones flying in their jurisdiction,” the federal transportation secretary, Elaine L. Chao, said in a statement.

As drone operators, manufacturers and others involved in the rapidly expanding drone industry began sifting through the 319-page proposal on Thursday afternoon, responses varied wildly. While some applauded the F.A.A. for finally creating a system to rapidly identify owners of rogue — potentially deadly — drones, others declared that this was going to drastically hinder drone efficiency and cost effectiveness.

Since 2015, operators of all drones that weigh more than half a pound have been required to register their devices, by submitting their names along with their email and home addresses to the F.A.A. Some federal facilities — prisons, for example — are authorized to use systems to detect the presence of drones, said Reggie Govan, a former chief counsel to the F.A.A. who now teaches at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

But at the moment, officials do not have a quick way to identify the owner of a given drone or to track the location of drones that have been registered by a particular person. Even airports and power plants currently lack the legal authority to track drones, Mr. Govan said.

At the simplest level the proposed regulation requires all drones over 0.55 pound to emit a very particular kind of signal. “Once you have drones that are emitting an identifier then you can have a system that can track all drones,” Mr. Govan said, adding that he applauded the regulations.

Brendan Schulman, vice president for policy and legal affairs at DJI, a Chinese company that is one of the leading manufacturers of small consumer drones, said that for the past several years, industry leaders and government stakeholders had been trying to figure out how to create a sort of drone “license plate system.” He said that the proposed system could make sense. His primary concern is that the cost and burden to drone pilots and operators remain low — something he is still evaluating. (DJI was embroiled in another government drone matter, with mounting security concerns that the cameras and other technology on its drones could send surveillance data back to China.)

But for Paul Aitken, a founder of DroneU, a drone pilot training company in New Mexico, the costs immediately struck him as excessive. The new regulations require all registered drones within 36 months to begin carrying a specific type of remote identification system that broadcasts over the internet.

Often finding an internet connection is not feasible in the locations where drone operators fly, Mr. Aitken said. According to his reading of the rules, if you don’t have cellular service or another way to connect to the internet, operators will have to limit flights to 400 feet laterally, which is roughly to the end of a block — and back.

Search and rescue missions often require going at least four times that distance, he said. “People will literally die from these rules,” he said, adding that other “industries that are thriving with drones like utility inspection, precision agriculture, land surveying, ranch management and even some construction management would suffer greatly” given that the rules undermine efficiency, which for many is part of the appeal of drones.

He is also concerned that drone pilots will have to publicly disclose their locations. “Pilots need privacy to protect them from fear-based citizens who think that drones are spying on them,” he said.

A New York City councilman, Justin Brannan, said he thought this was a step in the right direction, however. It is currently illegal to fly a drone in most of New York City. “We need to create a framework for drones to legally and safely operate here in New York City because I do believe the benefits will outweigh the risks,” he said.

The so-called Notice of Proposed Rulemaking will be open to public comment for 60 days. After reviewing comments, the F.A.A. will finalize the rule, it said.

Jonathan Rupprecht, a Florida-based lawyer who specializes in drones, was left with many questions as to how this would be enforced. He pointed out that the F.A.A. had rarely prosecuted violations of drone regulations — such as flying in a careless manner or flying an unregistered aircraft — over the last decade. “They should refrain from biting off more than they can chew,” he said. Mr. Rupprecht said that focusing on locations that need protecting, instead of creating an unwieldy tracking system for the entire United States, would be more realistic.