Robots that melt their way through ice may one day
explore below frozen surfaces of other worlds, based on a
pioneering version that successfully bored into an Arctic
glacier in an adventurous field test.

NASA teamed with the Norwegian Polar Institute and
Norwegian Space Center to use the ice-penetrating robot, or
Cryobot, for the first time on a glacier on the island of
Spitsbergen, far above the Arctic Circle in the Norwegian-
administered international territory of Svalbad.

Researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and
the California Institute of Technology coped with fading
daylight, frequent snow and severe cold while camping on the
Longyearbreen glacier for more than a week. Migrating polar
bears were also a concern, particularly during the team’s
late-night and early-morning vigils of the warm-nosed robot

Despite these obstacles, the test was completed, with
the probe successfully melting down 23 meters (75 feet) into
the glacier.

“The test showed the design has viability. It established
a bold foothold for opening up new, below-the-surface
environments for scientific study,” said Lloyd French, Cryobot
task manager at JPL. “In exploring outer planets, we have
observed from two environments: space orbits and planet
surfaces. Now we have a potential third: subsurface.”

The Cryobot began at JPL as a concept for examining
what’s under the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. NASA’s
Galileo spacecraft, orbiting Jupiter since 1995, has
accumulated strong evidence that Europa has a deep saltwater
ocean below the ice, making that moon a prime target for
studies of possible extraterrestrial life.

“In developing ideas for exploring Europa, we realized
the same technology could be applied to icy environments
elsewhere — ice on Earth, the polar icecaps on Mars,” French

“There’s never been a probe before that does what this
one can,” said Wayne Zimmerman, lead engineer for the task.
Earlier probes were much larger, required more power, did not
carry a full navigation and control system, could not manage
sediment buildup in front of the probe, and had limited
science-payload capacity.”

The first prototype of the Cryobot is a cylinder about 1
meter (3.3 feet) long and 12 centimeters (5 inches) in
diameter. Heated water at the downward end melts ice, and
gravity provides the propulsion. Instruments such as a camera
and chemical sensor ride aboard to study the deep layers
without the need to hoist a core to the surface. A tether
behind the vehicle provides an electronic link to the onboard
instruments and carries electricity from the surface to supply
heat in the Cryobot.

On deeper descents, ice would be allowed to refreeze
behind the robot, but in the first field tests, the borehole
was reopened for retrieving the equipment.

“By no means is Earth merely a testing ground for Europa
and Mars, said JPL’s Dr. Frank Carsey, Cryobot task
scientist. There are many interesting environments on Earth
where a Cryobot could be the best technology for conducting
safe and effective scientific studies.”

For exploring lakes that lie under permanent ice, a
Cryobot would have an advantage over rotary drilling or hot-
water drilling, which leave a hole open. Allowing ice to
refreeze behind the descending Cryobot would minimize
contamination of the lake, Carsey said. Antarctica has at
least 70 lakes under ice, including Earth’s fourth-largest
lake, Lake Vostok.

Choosing the Longyearbreen glacier for the first Cryobot
field test took advantage of the Norwegian Polar Institute’s
research infrastructure and logistical support in Svalbard.

“In the past, the United States and Norway participated
in a global race for the North Pole on Earth. Now, with the
help of the Norwegian Polar Institute and Norwegian Space
Center, we’re cooperating on a possible way to explore another
north pole, on Mars,” said French.

A mission proposal called Cryoscout will compete with
other Mars Scout proposals to be chosen by NASA for a 2007
launch to Mars. Cryoscout is one of 10 Mars Scout concepts
selected last year for further study. It proposes using a
Cryobot to descend through Mars’ polar ice cap.

“If you want to learn about the climate history of Mars,
which is important in the search for life, you want to examine
the layers of the polar caps, and this is how you can do it,”
said Scott Anderson, a geophysicist on the Cryobot field-test

Work also continues on developing plans for how a Cryobot
could be used on icy worlds such as Europa or Titan, though
NASA has no specific plans at this point for landing a
spacecraft on either. A Europa Orbiter mission is under
development at JPL with a launch target of 2008.

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology
in Pasadena, manages Cryobot development for the NASA Office
of Aero-Space Technology’s Cross-Enterprise Technology
Program, NASA Office of Space Science and NASA Office of Earth
Science, in Washington, D.C.

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1/10/02 – GW #2002-006

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