What would you need to explore an ocean on Europa, one of Jupiter's moons? It's hundreds of millions of miles away, and the ocean lies under a sheet of ice at least 10 kilometers (6 miles) thick. You'd probably need a spacecraft to land on the ice, a way to drill through the ice, and a submersible vehicle to explore the ocean and relate findings back to Earth.
This submersible vehicle is a project occupying the efforts of Dr. Bill Stone, CEO of Stone Aerospace in Austin, Texas. Stone and his colleagues have developed a prototype autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) called Deep Phreatic Thermal Explorer (DEPTHX) for remote exploration and are currently testing it in a large underwater cave. In this article, we will examine this revolutionary AUV, its mission and how it fits into the larger scheme of extraterrestrial exploration.
The DEPTHX project is one of a series funded by NASA to develop robotic probes capable of exploring Europa (we will discuss why Europa is such an interesting target later). Stone Aerospace designed, built and operates DEPTHX in cooperation with its partners:
- Carnegie Mellon University's Field Robotics Center - develops and tests navigational software
- SwRI, Colorado School of Mines, the University of Colorado, Boulder and the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory - consult on the science payload with the goal of detecting microbial life
- University of Texas at Austin - provides logistical support during DEPTHX tests
The DEPTHX project is designed to answer these questions:
- Can a fully-automated AUV explore an unknown, three-dimensional world on a day-to-day basis unaided by mission control? In doing so, can it create and use maps to navigate and return to a "home location" to report its findings?
DEPTH X has completed tank testing (which includes systems integration and mapping) and is now preparing to undergo tests in a completely unknown environment: Mexico's Zacatón cenote.
Next, let's take a closer look at the AUV and its systems.