One of the greatest quests for scientists is to spot the presence of a life form on other objects in the universe. They do this by trying to identify biomarkers, such as water. This is why exploration agencies, notably NASA, are interested in Europe, one of Jupiter's many moons. They nevertheless face a real major problem that could compromise the entire mission: the risk of failure of the exploration robot used.
Fortunately, researchers believe they have found a way to remedy this problem, at least for environments where water exists in abundance in the form of ice. The idea is to design a rover that could self-repair, or even replicate in the event of a breakdown. Concretely, they thought of a structure made mainly of ice. The new concept was called IceBot.
The study was carried out by a duo of scientists, Devin Carroll and Mark Yim. It was presented at the 2020 International Conference of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) held in June.
A couple of rovers working as a team
The duo explained that the work they presented is still at a preliminary stage. They believe, in any case, that ice is the most suitable material for an environment like Europe, whose surface is entirely covered with ice with an estimated thickness of about 10 km.
Carroll and Yim drew inspiration from rovers destined for Antarctica to design IceBot. It is a rover with two wheels. The robot is supposed to be operational in conditions where the temperature is below 0 ° C. Their calculations are based on the average annual temperatures recorded in Antarctica by the McMurdo station.
On the basis of IceBot, the researchers then imagined two robots that would work as a duo. The first rover would be the one that would carry out the exploration missions with the help of the second one, which would take care of manufacturing and repair. To do this, in addition to exploring, the first will need to collect the materials needed for improvement and maintenance.
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What technique to make the robot parts?
The type of energy and the way in which it is used are determining criteria for the system of a rover. The longevity of the Voyager spacecraft, for example, lies primarily in its way of optimizing energy. Thus, before sending rovers of ice to another world, researchers will first have to study which one the craft will use.
Equally important is the technique used to shape the ice, especially for this revolutionary concept. The two researchers are currently in a phase where they are exploring ways to exploit the malleability of ice. Concretely, they try to find the most effective techniques to make the robot parts with frozen water among different alternatives.
They still hesitate between melting the ice and then molding it; print in 3D; carving mechanically, for example with a chisel; use an open flame; use a heated metal rod; or saw to have the desired shape.
Each of these methods has its advantages and disadvantages, but engineers tend to opt for casting and sawing. In addition to giving a better result, these are energy efficient.