Ocean Moons Could Soon Be Swarming With Tiny Human-Made Robots

For all intents and purposes, the planets in our immediate vicinity, Venus and Mars, are long dead. Even if there probably was a time when at least one of them harbored life, the apparent lack of liquid water makes that all but impossible now. Luckily, the solar system does have oceans on other celestial bodies.
Sensing with Independent Micro-Swimmers 1 photo
Scientists have their sights set on at least three places that might hide liquid water under a heavy coating of ice. They are all moons of the distant gas giants: Enceladus and Titan, which orbit Saturn, and Europa that is spinning around Jupiter.

Missions to these places are already in the pipeline, and after we get our fill of the Moon and Mars, one of these three pieces of rock will probably be next. At first, we’ll target them with probes, of course, trying to find out what’s there.

NASA is already working on something called Scientific Exploration Subsurface Access Mechanism for Europa (SESAME), a project meant to develop some piece of hardware that can penetrate ice and start looking for life.

As an extension of the SESAME capabilities, JPL’s Ethan Schaler envisions an entire fleet of tiny robots that could be launched left and right, under the ice, and set about exploring a far larger piece of real estate than SESAME itself could be able of exploring.

These robots are called SWIM (Sensing with Independent Micro-Swimmers). They are cm-scale, can be 3D printed in large numbers, and fitted with actuators to be able to move, sensors to see and feel their way around, and wireless control mechanisms to receive their orders.

It sounds great, but this project, too, is in its very early stages. NASA selected it alongside another of Schaler’s projects, the FLOAT levitating railway for the Moon, to be backed through the Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.

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