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 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.
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.
“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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