Friday, 19 June 2015

Laser-armed 'cryobots' may soon be hunting alien life

By Daniel Culpan

A new fleet of robots designed to withstand extreme cold and tunnel through ice may soon be heading to Jupiter's moon Europa, all in an effort to look for extraterrestrial life.

According to Astrobiology Magazine, Texas-based smart mechanics company Stone Aerospace has developed and been testing the Valkyrie (Very deep Autonomous Laser-powered Kilowatt-class Yo-yoing Robotic Ice Explorer): a "cryobot" that could one day be heading to Jupiter's frozen moon.

Valkyrie -- which, despite the name, is no relation to Nasa's very own Valkyrie robot -- uses lasers to tunnel through thick layers of ice. The nifty cryobot successfully completed tests at Alaska's Matanuska glacier last summer, where it's heading again in the next few months. On its latest test run, the Valkyrie will be trialling an instrument that can search for microbes under the glacier surface -- a technology that could be crucial for probing Europa, and other moons in the outer solar system, for signs of life.

Europa has a saltwater ocean buried deep under a crust of ice, which scientists believe could be home to life beyond Earth. The first mission to Europa is set for around 2025, when the Europa Clipper will attempt to venture into the moon's notoriously thin atmosphere. Nasa has already earmarked around $30 million dollars for the development of the project in 2016. However, the Clipper won't actually be able to land on the surface; it will simply be looking for suitable places to land.