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Life-Hunting Tiny Robots Could Someday Roam the Deep Seas of Alien Worlds

An intriguing concept for searching for life beyond Earth has been proposed by a robotics mechanical engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California. It's called SWIM, and it's made up of dozens of tiny swimming robots that might explore the oceans beneath Jupiter's moon Europa or Saturn's moon Enceladus.
Illustration of the SWIM concept 7 photos
Illustration of the SWIM conceptJupiter Moon EuropaJupiter Moon EuropaJupiter Moon EuropaJupiter Moon EuropaJupiter Moon Europa
The concept, proposed by Ethan Schaler, suggests that the swarm of robots will be placed initially inside a probe that will first melt the frozen crust of other worlds. Then, the Sensing With Independent Micro-Swimmers (SWIM) would be released underwater.

That's where their quest of finding signs of life starts. What's interesting about Schaler's concept is that these robotic swimmers would be smaller than any spacecraft or robotic system ever sent to the Moon or Mars. Each one of them would be just as big as a cellphone.

Their size is a key advantage. Instead of sending just one probe or spacecraft to study the alien world, NASA could send dozens. These robots would easily fit inside a probe, and the probability of finding traces of life would be much higher.

"With a swarm of small swimming robots, we are able to explore a much larger volume of ocean water and improve our measurements by having multiple robots collecting data in the same area," added Schaler.

He says that four dozen of these mini-robots could fit in a 4-inch-long (10-cm-long) portion of a cryobot, accounting for around 15 percent of the research payload volume. That would leave enough space for other research instruments that could focus on collecting crucial data from the icy surface.

Moreover, the SWIM could be designed to behave like fish or birds that flock together. Since their measurements would overlap, this would reduce errors in data sent back. Every robot would include a propulsion system, an onboard computer, an ultrasonic communications system, as well as sensors that would be able to measure the temperature, salinity, and acidity of the distant world.

For now, the project is still in its infancy, and it's not considered an official NASA mission. Recently, the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program awarded the SWIM concept with $600,000, allowing Ethan Schaler and his team to continue work on the project. Over the next two years, the robotics mechanical engineer will focus on making and testing 3D-printed prototypes of SWIM.

Editor's note: Gallery includes images of Jupiter's Moon Europa.

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