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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.

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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.


“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.

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Rocket Launches, Trips to Mars and More 2020 Space and Astronomy Events

If you follow space news and astronomy, the past year offered no shortage of highlights. Astronomers provided humanity’s first glimpse of a black hole. China landed on the moon’s far side. And the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing inspired us to look ahead to our future in space.

The year to come will be no less eventful:

  • No fewer than four missions to Mars could leave Earth this summer.

  • NASA may finally launch astronauts into orbit aboard capsules built by SpaceX and Boeing.

  • We expect to learn more secrets about the interstellar comet Borisov.

  • And private companies are working to demonstrate new abilities in space.

However much you love space and astronomy, it can be challenging to keep up with the latest news in orbit and beyond. That’s why we’ve put dates for some of these events on The Times’s Astronomy and Space Calendar, which has been updated for 2020. Subscribe on your personal digital calendar to be automatically synced with our updates all year long. (We promise not to collect any personal information from your private calendar when you sign up.)

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Below are some of the launches, space science and other events to look forward to.

Roughly every two years, the orbits of Earth and Mars come closer than usual. Space agencies on Earth often send missions to the red planet during that window, and in 2020 four such launches are scheduled.

Three of the missions will carry rovers. The United States is launching the soon-to-be-renamed Mars 2020 rover, which also carries a small helicopter. It will try to land in Jezero Crater, which once contained a lake and could preserve evidence of life, if life ever existed there.

Neither China, Europe nor Russia has deployed a rover on the Martian surface. But they will try, in a pair of missions. China’s mission, its first on its own to the red planet, includes an orbiter in addition to a rover. The European Space Agency and Russia cooperated to build Rosalind Franklin, a rover named for the English chemist whose work was essential to finding the structure of DNA.

The rovers could be joined on Mars by Hope, an orbiter commissioned by the United Arab Emirates. It is being built in Colorado, and is to be launched on a Japanese rocket. If it succeeds, it could represent a new model for space programs, in which small, wealthy countries pay for off-the-shelf spacecraft to get themselves into orbit and beyond.

Since the space shuttle’s last flight, in 2011, NASA has relied on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for trips to and from the International Space Station. In 2019, NASA hoped to begin flying astronauts aboard capsules built by two private companies, SpaceX and Boeing, but persistent delays knocked back the timeline another year.

NASA’s commercial crew program could finally achieve its goal in 2020. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is scheduled to conduct an uncrewed test of its in-flight abort system on Jan. 11. If the test succeeds, the capsule could carry astronauts to the space station not long after.

Boeing’s Starliner experienced problems during its first uncrewed test flight in December and was unable to dock with the space station. An upcoming review of that test will determine whether Starliner might still be able to fly into orbit with astronauts in the first half of this year.

Virgin Galactic, the space-plane company run by Richard Branson, conducted two successful test flights with crew aboard in the past 13 months. In the year to come, the company could carry its first passengers to the edge of space. Blue Origin, the company founded by Jeff Bezos of Amazon, may follow suit; it has conducted 12 crewless tests of its capsule for short tourist jumps to suborbital space. For now, only the very wealthy will be able to afford such jaunts.

Other private companies are looking to Earth orbit for the future of internet service. SpaceX launched 120 Starlink satellites in 2019 and could launch many more in 2020. A competitor, OneWeb, could send more of its satellites to orbit in the coming year, too. These companies are blazing the trail for orbital internet — a business that Amazon and Apple are also pursuing — and upsetting astronomers, who fear that large constellations of internet satellites will imperil scientific study of the solar system and stars.

In September, a comet called Borisov 2I was spotted in our solar system, only the second ever confirmed interstellar object. Unlike Oumuamua, which was spotted in 2017 only as it was leaving the solar system, astronomers caught sight of Borisov and its 100,000-mile-long tail as it flew toward the sun, before it turned and began its exit.

In 2020, scientists will continue to point ground and orbiting telescopes at Borisov as it speeds back toward the stars beyond — unless, as some astronomers hope, it explodes into fragments after being heated by the sun. Whatever happens, other interstellar visitors are sure to follow, and professional sky gazers hope to find them with powerful new telescopes in the years ahead.

Before the end of 2020, the moon could see one more visitor from Earth. Chang’e-5, a robotic probe built by China, aims to collect moon rock and soil samples and send them back to Earth. The last set of lunar samples was gathered in 1976 by a Soviet spacecraft.

The year to come may also bring greater clarity about American designs for returning to the moon. NASA is aiming to put the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024, with a program called Artemis. A wide range of political, budgetary and technological hurdles stand in the way of meeting that ambitious timeline.