Swarm of Tiny Swimming Robots Could Look for Life on Distant Worlds

In the Sensing With Independent Micro-Swimmers (SWIM) concept, illustrated here, dozens of small robots would descend through the icy shell of a distant moon via a cryobot – depicted at left – to the ocean below. The project has received funding from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A concept in development at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory would allow potential planetary missions to chase interesting clues in subsurface oceans.

PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — Someday, a swarm of cellphone-size robots could whisk through the water beneath the miles-thick icy shell of Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s moon Enceladus, looking for signs of alien life. Packed inside a narrow ice-melting probe that would tunnel through the frozen crust, the tiny robots would be released underwater, swimming far from their mothercraft to take the measure of a new world.

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Using Micro-robots to Search for Alien Life on Ocean Moons

SWIM concept of operations, including lander / ocean-access cryobot (Left) and deployed micro-swimmers (Right) with independent propulsion, sensing and two-way ultrasound communication to the cryobot mothercraft. (Credits: Ethan Schaler)

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Phase I Award
Funding: up to $125,000
Study Period: 9 months

SWIM — Sensing with Independent Micro-swimmers
Ethan Schaler
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Pasadena, Calif.

The next decades of space exploration will focus on Ocean Worlds – especially Enceladus, Europa, and Titan – whose liquid oceans beneath kilometers of icy crust are some of the most likely locations beyond Earth to harbor life. To access these aquatic environments, NASA is developing and maturing numerous ocean-access mission concepts, including the Scientific Exploration Subsurface Access Mechanism for Europa (SESAME) class of thermo-mechanical drilling robots.

We propose developing SWIM – Sensing with Independent Micro-swimmers – dramatically expand the capabilities of SESAME-class ocean-access robotic missions and significantly increase their likelihood of detecting evidence of habitability / biomarkers / life.

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