NASA’s autonomous robotic snake in the hunt for life on an icy Saturn moon


NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has created a self-propelled, autonomous robotic snake designed to discover excessive extraterrestrial terrain. Its first-of-a-kind propulsion system means it could actually boldly go the place no robotic snake has gone earlier than.

The robotic snake known as an Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor (EELS) and was impressed by a want to search for life deep in Saturn’s icy moon, Enceladus.

Within the mid-to-late-2000s, when the Cassini spacecraft despatched again to Earth photographs of Enceladus, one among Saturn’s 83 moons, scientists found it was lively and hiding a salty ocean of liquid water beneath its crust, one thing that solely a handful of worlds are recognized to own. What’s distinctive about Enceladus – which is sufficiently small to suit throughout the size of the UK – is that it constantly sprays plumes of icy particles from that ocean, combined with water and easy natural chemical substances, into house.

Investigating these plumes, and the slim vents they escape from, are what prompted the event of EELS. Development of the prototype started in 2019 and has been commonly up to date. Since 2022, the JPL staff has been conducting month-to-month area exams to refine the robotic’s {hardware} and software program in order that it’s in a position to function autonomously.

The present iteration of EELS is 13-ft (4-m) lengthy and weighs about 220 lb (100 kg). Its 10 equivalent, rotating segments use screw heads for propulsion and grip. The EELS staff have experimented with totally different screws to be used in numerous terrains: 3D-printed plastic screws for looser terrain and sharper steel screws for ice.

The staff has examined EELS utilizing a snowy ‘robotic playground’ at a Southern Californian ski resort, at an indoor ice rink, and in sandy terrain. As a result of they’ve entered new territory with EELS, the testing course of has been tutorial.

The first EELS prototype being tested on a Pasadena ice rink
The primary EELS prototype being examined on a Pasadena ice rink


“We now have a unique philosophy of robotic improvement than conventional spacecraft, with many fast cycles of testing and correcting,” stated Hiro Ono, JPL’s principal investigator. “There are dozens of textbooks about find out how to design a four-wheel automobile, however there isn’t a textbook about find out how to design an autonomous snake robotic to boldly go the place no robotic has gone earlier than. We now have to write down our personal.”

Given the communication lag between Earth and deep house, EELS’ potential to function autonomously is vital. If it runs into an issue, it wants to have the ability to get better by itself with out counting on human help.

“Think about a automotive driving autonomously, however there are not any cease indicators, no visitors indicators, not even any roads,” stated Rohan Thakker, the undertaking’s autonomy lead. “The robotic has to determine what the street is and attempt to observe it. Then it must go down a 100-feet [30-m] drop and never fall.”

To help with autonomy, EELS makes use of 4 pairs of stereo cameras and LiDAR (Gentle Detection and Ranging) to provide a 3D map of its environment. LiDAR determines vary by focusing on a floor or object with a laser and measuring the time it takes for the mirrored mild to return to the receiver. EELS makes use of this data to create navigation algorithms in order that it could actually extra simply traverse difficult areas.

To check EELS’ mapping capabilities, final yr, the JPL staff dropped the robotic’s head – the half that comprises the cameras and LiDAR – right into a vertical shaft at Athabasca Glacier within the Canadian Rockies. They’ll return to the glacier in September with an up to date model of EELS to see the way it fared.

EELS’ remaining type will comprise 48 little motors (actuators) that can present extra flexibility. Many have built-in force-torque sensing, which can allow EELS to ‘really feel’ how a lot strain it’s exerting on the terrain. This can assist it to navigate uneven surfaces in slim areas very similar to a rock climber does, shimmying upward or downward by pushing in opposition to opposing partitions.

The following step is to include scientific devices.

“Our focus to this point has been on autonomous functionality and mobility, however finally we’ll have a look at what science devices we will combine with EELS,” stated Matthew Robinson, EELS undertaking supervisor. “Scientists inform us the place they need to go, what they’re most enthusiastic about, and we’ll present a robotic that can get them there.”

EELS adaptability signifies that, other than Enceladus, the robotic snake can be utilized to discover Mars’ polar caps, or deep icy crevasses on our personal planet.

Nonetheless, it is a while until EELS will likely be slithering throughout the terrain of different planets. Scientists hope the robotic will likely be full by fall subsequent yr, nonetheless it is then anticipated to be a decade-long anticipate a spacecraft to taxi EELS to Enceladus.

The video under, from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, reveals EELS being examined in numerous environments.

Testing Out JPL’s New Snake Robotic

Supply: NASA/JPL