24 Apr 2012

Credit: Stone Aerospace

Future extraterrestrial robots may use high-powered laser beams to penetrate the thick layers of ice on Jupiter's moon Europa and search for life.  This is what inventor and explorer Bill Stone has in mind and told attendees at NASA's Astrobiology Science Conference in Atlanta.  His company, Stone Aerospace, has been at work on a six-foot by ten inch robotic cylinder called Valkyrie.

The idea is that the power plant is left on the surface of the moon, with the high-powered laser traveling down miles of fiber-optic cable.

"Our modest goal over the next three years is to use a 5,000-watt laser to send a cryobot through up to 250 meters of ice," Stone said at the Atlanta conference.  If his technique is successful it would get around the issues scientists have had with studying what is under the ice on Europa.  The main issues here are that solar power can't work under the surface, batteries don't last long enough, the robots have had too large a footprint and international treaty restrictions prevent the use of nuclear robots.

Credit: Stone Aerospace
Credit: Stone Aerospace

The goal for Stone is a 2013-2014 dry run at Alaska's Matanuska Glacier in June of next year.  He will attempt to cut through ten to fifty meters of ice.  Then by fall of 2014 the cryobot will attempt to go through 200 meters in Greenland.

NASA awarded Stone Aerospace four-year 4 million dollar funding to continue developing Valkyrie.

Stone has a doctorate in structural engineering and has created devices to help humans explorer remote areas.  He and his team from several universities built DepthX, a deep-diving robot that has explored Mexico's deepest water sinkhole.  He also had a hand in missions in Antarctica using the robot called Endurance to explore a sub-glacial lake.  Stone's previous devices have not had to cut through ice.  So Valkyrie will be a proving ground in this area for Stone and his team.

Once the ice technique has been proven, the next step is to determine a safe landing location for the spacecraft.  Despite the images from Voyager and Galileo there are not enough high resolution photos to determine this as of yet.

Source:  news.discovery.com, Stone Aerospace

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