Mini robot for use in space will be tested in Antarctica | Polarjournal
The nanoAUV being developed at MARUM in Bremen will be similar to this model. It will be no more than about 50 centimeters long with a diameter of about ten centimeters. Graphic: MARUM

TRIPLE-nanoAUV 2 is being developed at the German MARUM – Center for Marine Environmental Sciences at the University of Bremen. Its purpose: to explore the waters beneath a thick layer of ice on the moons “Europa” and “Enceladus”. Before its deployment in space, it will be tested in Antarctica in 2026.

Does water exist beneath the ice of Europa and Enceladus? And if so, might life exist there? It is possible, since microorganisms have also been detected in the subglacial lakes in Antarctica that lie beneath a kilometer-thick ice sheet. But to be able to answer these questions with certainty, we need to penetrate the ice sheet. And that is precisely why the German Aerospace Center has launched the TRIPLE project line, which is now entering its second phase.

The TRIPLE-nanoAUV during a future space mission on Jupiter’s moon Europa. With the help of a melting probe, it will penetrate the waters beneath the ice layer and search for traces of life. Illustration: MARUM

The heart of TRIPLE – the joint project TRIPLE-nanoAUV 2 – is coordinated at the German MARUM – Centre for Marine Environmental Sciences in Bremen. Here, the autonomous mini-underwater robot (nanoAUV – Autonomous Underwater Vehicle) is being developed, which will not only explore what is hidden beneath the ice covers of the moons. In Antarctica, too, hitherto unknown ecosystems are suspected in subglacial lakes, and the nanoAUV could make a significant contribution to exploring them. That’s exactly where it will be tested in about three years, before setting off on space missions in the somewhat more distant future.

“Such nano-vehicles can help to provide a bet­ter over­all un­der­stand­ing of mar­ine eco­sys­tems,” Prof Ralf Bachmayer says, project leader at MARUM, in a press release.

This is how the TRIPLE team imagines the nanoAUV during a dive. Animation: Sebastian Meckel / MARUM

However, exploring the waters covered with a layer of ice up to 4,000 metres thick is anything but trivial and requires enormous technical know-how. “The new autonom­ous sys­tem is unique and should make it pos­sible in the fu­ture to study the global li­quid-wa­ter ocean be­low the icy sur­faces of Jupiter’s moon Europa and Sat­urn’s moon En­ce­ladus. Mini­atur­iz­a­tion is the primary chal­lenge in its de­vel­op­ment, with the probe dic­tat­ing the over­all size. In ad­di­tion, all of the com­pon­ents must be able to with­stand the high pres­sure un­der wa­ter,” Prof. Bachmayer continues. In addition, the nanoAUV must withstand low temperatures and unknown salinity and currents as well as cope with dangerous obstacles.

The TRIPLE-nanoAUV will be significantly smaller than previous autonomous underwater vehicles, as it can only get through the ice sheet inside a melting probe that has already been developed in the parallel TRIPLE-IceCraft project. Its diameter will only be about ten centimetres and its length about 50 centimetres.

At the same time, a Launch & Recovery System (LRS) is being developed to start and bring back the robot beneath the ice. The LRS will enable the nanoAUV to dock with an underwater station to transmit collected data, recharge its battery and thus remain submerged for longer periods of time.

A test of the complete TRIPLE system in Antarctica will be carried out in the Antarctic spring of 2026 near the German Neumayer III Station on the Ekström Ice Shelf. In spring 2029, the final TRIPLE system will be tested in the Dome C region in Wilkesland, East Antarctica. Illustration: Maximilian Nitsch / RWTH Aachen University

“The ob­ject­ive is to garner ex­pert­ise within the DLR Ex­plorer ini­ti­at­ives that could be used in a pos­sible in­ter­na­tional space mis­sion,” Sebastian Meckel, the lead engineer, explains. “The first field tests will de­ploy the melt­ing probe with the nanoAUV in­teg­rated as pay­load in ice with a thick­ness of 100 meters. In ad­di­tion, the nanoAUV is un­der­actu­ated com­pared to lar­ger autonom­ous vehicles, mean­ing it has lim­ited man­euver­ab­il­ity. This ne­ces­sit­ates an ex­tremely high re­li­ab­il­ity and close co­ordin­a­tion among the as­so­ci­ates from TRIPLE-GNC and TRIPLE-Life­D­e­tect.”

The nanoAUV is being developed at MARUM in collaboration with industrial partners as well as associated TRIPLE projects, such as TRIPLE-GNC (navigation and control) and TRIPLE-LifeDetect (scientific payload). The TRIPLE project line is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Climate Protection.

Julia Hager, PolarJournal

Link to the TRIPLE project: https://triple-project.net/

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