Endurance set to explore Europa

Three months ago, I mentioned DEPTHX, a robot built to explore deep water in Mexico. Now, scientists from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and NASA are working on a reengineered version of the robotic probe. This new autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) will be called ENDURANCE. This robotic device will be used to map the icy waters of Antarctica. It will perform two exploration campaigns of West Lake Bonney, a lake perpetually trapped beneath 12 to 15 feet of ice in 2008 and 2009. Then it will be redesigned again to explore gigantic Antarctica's Lake Vostok and maybe one day the icy oceans of Europa, one of Jupiter's moons.

Three months ago, I mentioned DEPTHX, a robot built to explore deep water in Mexico. Now, scientists from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and NASA are working on a reengineered version of the robotic probe. This new autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) will be called ENDURANCE. This robotic device will be used to map the icy waters of Antarctica. It will perform two exploration campaigns of West Lake Bonney, a lake perpetually trapped beneath 12 to 15 feet of ice in 2008 and 2009. Then it will be redesigned again to explore gigantic Antarctica's Lake Vostok and maybe one day the icy oceans of Europa, one of Jupiter's moons.

The ENDURANCE robotic probeLike DEPTHX, ENDURANCE will be built by Stone Aerospace, a Texas-based company. By the way, ENDURANCE is an acronym for "Environmentally Non-Disturbing Under-ice Robotic ANtarctiC Explorer." On the left, you can see how the equipments and the embedded systems of the AUV. (Credit: Stone Aerospace). Here are two links to a larger version of this illustration and to the ENDURANCE web page which contains lots of technical details about this robotic explorer.

But why designing a robot to explore the icy waters of Antarctica? Peter Doran, an associate professor of earth and environmental sciences at UIC, who is the lead investigator for this project, and whose research interests are focused on modern hydrological and biogeochemical processes in polar lake systems, said that "our goal is to build a submersible autonomous underwater vehicle to map in 3-D the geochemistry and biology of this ice-covered lake."

And what is ENDURANCE's schedule? It will be "tested next February in an ice-covered Wisconsin lake before making the trip to Antarctica in November. ENDURANCE will map Bonney for a month, then do a second mapping in 2009. Data gathered will be relayed back to Chicago where it will be used by UIC's Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL) to generate various 3-D images, maps and data renderings of the lake."

In "A Tool for Finding Life in Outer Space," Technology Review gives additional details about the technologies used by this AUV.

"While the propulsion and navigation systems between [endurance and depthx] will be similar, the science package will be completely different," says Peter Doran, an associate professor of earth and environmental sciences at UIC and the project's lead investigator, who formulated the initial proposal. "We are building an entirely new vehicle to discover how to best map a large water body covered in ice." Both systems are being funded by NASA and engineered by Stone Aerospace.
Unlike depthx, which swims through the warm water at various depths using visualization systems and which takes water samples to gather data, endurance will be dropped into the water through a drill or a melt hole in the ice and will swim at the top of the water. Tethered to it will be a deployable package that includes a new set of sensors designed to detect organic molecules and characterize life forms. By lowering the package into certain study areas, scientists will help preserve Antarctica's pristine environment. An onboard flash drive will gather the data to be relayed back to a visualization laboratory in Chicago that will generate 3-D images, maps, and graphics of the lake.

ENDURANCE, which is funded by NASA's Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets program (ASTEP), will explore another lake before going one day into space. Let's return to the UIC news release for additional details.

If the autonomous vehicle works well, the next goal is sending a much smaller version of ENDURANCE to probe Antarctica's massive, Lake Ontario-sized Lake Vostok, which sits under more than two-and-a-half miles of ice. Some water in Vostok hasn't had contact with the earth's atmosphere in over a million years. "The lessons learned from mapping out Bonney will be important for developing strategies for exploring Vostok and icy moons, like Europa," said Doran. "You're not going to send people there, so you have to develop autonomous ways to do it."

Let's hope that everything goes fine for this exciting project!

Sources: University of Illinois at Chicago news release, April 19, 2007; Brittany Sauser, Technology Review, April 25, 2007; and various websites

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