NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) might sound like an odd body to be working on robots to explore volcanoes, and it is, but the space research group still has its eyes on the prize. Heat, after all, is heat, and to a large extent innovations that work on Earth should be applicable most places in the universe. More to the point, basic geographic features on the Moon, Mars, and elsewhere likely work much as they do here on Earth, so why not do a little bit of homework before we roll a few billion dollars of technology into a darkened, explosive magma-pimple?
That’s the idea behind JPL’s VolcanoBot initiative, which has actually been ongoing for some time now. The project is already at the point of version 2.0, making the machine smaller and more durable while allowing its sensor to swivel, and the researchers can now drive it via a live video feed. VolcanoBot applies these new abilities as it simply drives itself down into volcanic fissures, the sorts of accessible and non-magma-flooded cracks that could show us a lot about how and why volcanoes erupt. Even in modern computer models, we have only the most simplified of understandings of the physical forces that lead molten rock to come shooting out of the Earth.
To overcome the intense heats and chemical pressures VolcanoBot would encounter, the explorer had to have an exceedingly simple, durable design. VolcanoBot 1 was sent down into the Earth to build a 3D map of a particular fissure at Hawaii’s inactive Kilauea volcano, but its more primitive design wasn’t able to make it all the way through. VolcanoBot 2, with its stronger motors, better sensors, and stronger line of communication with the surface, could be enough to actually finish the job. At just 10-inches long, it’s 2 inches smaller than its predecessor, and should be able to get through tighter spaces for determined mapping.
Here is one university’s stab at a Mars 2020 rover design.
Though the data collected by the robots will take some time to be turned into volcanic insight, the sheer engineering successes are the more pressing concern for NASA in any case. VolcanoBot is small and self-sufficient enough that we could imagine Curiosity’s life-hunting successor carrying and releasing a few like a real-world version of Soundwave. For relatively little increased weight, landers could furnish our extraterrestrial explorers with exploratory minions of their own. These mini-bots might spring from JPL’s work in volcano exploration, or from their past investment in deep sea technology, or their modern work with gecko-like grabber designs.
Volcanic fissures on alien worlds are a good target for life-finding missions, since the regular output of thermal energy would make them appealing places for microorganisms. Many biologists believe that life began on Earth near deep sea vents, and for precisely this reason; the heat energy could theoretically be harvested to power a cell’s metabolism, even in a world that receives little to no sunlight or which has not yet evolved any photosynthetic processes. NASA is obsessed with life finding these days, which in many cases means designing tools that can get into tighter and tighter spaces.
If we want to explore cryo-volcanoes like these, we’d better practice on the hot ones we’ve got at home.
The robotics work at JPL is increasingly taking center stage, even relative to literal jet propulsion work. It used to be that getting technology to Mars was the primary challenge — researchers couldn’t fully throw themselves into the question of what that tech should do once it actually got there. Now that NASA has more concrete ideas about putting humans and human technology on Mars, the features should start rolling in. The step up in feature-set from Curiosity to the so-called Mars 2020 rover will be incredible, bringing with it better abilities in drilling, scanning, laser-blasting, and, just maybe, splitting up to explore our solar system both above and below the surface.