NASA scientists are dropping an upside-down underwater rover into the icy oceans of Antarctica.
The robot, called the Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration (BRUIE), is a prototype of the rover that could search for life in frozen alien oceans.Advertisement
It's part of NASA's plans to explore the secret oceans of two distant icy moons, Europa and Enceladus. NASA plans to launch the next spacecraft to Europa in 2025.
These moons and this underwater rover are our best shot at finding alien life in the solar system.
Here's everything you need to know about the underwater rover, the worlds it could explore, and how NASA plans to search for life there.
NASA began testing an alien-hunting underwater rover in Antarctica this week.
The rover rolls across the bottom of the sheet of ice covering the polar ocean.
BRUIE is a prototype, but its unique approach could allow future rovers to explore alien oceans beneath the ice of distant worlds.
"BRUIE will carry several science instruments to measure parameters related to life, such as dissolved oxygen, water salinity, pressure and temperature," Berisford said.
NASA scientists hope this technology will one day search for alien life on two faraway moons that hide vast oceans below thick sheets of ice.
The first ocean world, Europa, is an icy moon of Jupiter.
Scientists have long suspected that Europa conceals an ocean below its ice surface — possibly with twice the volume of Earth's oceans.
In June, scientists spotted sodium chloride (also known as table salt) in Europa's ice, indicating that the ocean below could be similar to those on Earth.
The second world, Enceladus, is an icy moon of Saturn.
Like Europa, Enceladus hides a subsurface ocean of liquid water that could be habitable to alien life.
Both moons seem to contain the basic chemical ingredients for life.
But there's one major problem: The sunlight that fuels life on Earth is 25 times fainter on Europa.
But both moons' oceans are likely much warmer than their surfaces, thanks to their oval-shaped orbits.
These tides stretch and relax Europa and Enceladus, cracking their surface ice and building friction that heats the moons from the inside.
These tides could crack the moons' mantle and give rise to deep-sea hydrothermal vents.
Life on Earth crops up around these vents. These ecosystems don't need sunlight to survive.
That's why NASA is developing robots to explore hidden alien oceans — like this submarine, called Orpheus.
First, scientists must learn how to recognize and observe forms of life that might thrive at deep-sea pressures.
But NASA is still just testing those technologies. Before they take off, the agency plans to send a spacecraft to scout the surface of Europa.
The spacecraft is expected to fly through Europa's water vapor plumes to analyze what might be in the ocean.
That investigation could help scientists land a future spacecraft on Europa's surface and punch through the ice.
After Europa, Enceladus is about an extra 400 million miles away, but NASA scientists have proposed a mission to search for life there.