NASA’s Mars Rover might have captured headlines, but a new bot deployed in Greenland might be doing even more important work. NASA’s newest scientific rover, a robot known as GROVER, is on its way to Greenland for over a month of testing on the ice-covered country’s highest elevations. GROVER, which stands for both Greenland Rover and Goddard Remotely Operated Vehicle for Exploration and Research, is powered by the sun and will help scientists better understand changes in the quickly-shrinking ice sheet.
Despite its name, Greenland is anything but green. Covered in ice almost 12 months out of the year, this frigid country has recently been at the very center of the discussion about accelerating climate change. Last summer, higher than normal temperatures caused surface melting across about 97 percent of the ice sheet, and residents report that they’re now able to grow delicate vegetables like tomatoes and strawberries in outdoor greenhouses – something that would have been utterly impossible just 10 short years ago.
Scientists sent to study the shrinking ice sheet must journey long distances via snow mobile to take samples of the ice floes. It may be a fun adventure, but it’s not the best use of the scientists’ time, and as always, there are safety risks. With GROVER, it could be possible to cover more ground in a shorter period of time, without putting human life in jeopardy.
“Robots like GROVER will give us a new tool for glaciology studies,” said Lora Koenig, a glaciologist at Goddard and science advisor on the project. Scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., expect GROVER to detect the layer of the ice sheet that formed in the aftermath of that extreme melt event. The rover was developed in 2010 and 2011 by teams of students participating in summer engineering boot camps at Goddard.
The tank-like GROVER prototype stands six feet tall, including its solar panels, which are mounted in an inverted V, allowing them to collect both direct sunlight and that which is reflected off the ice sheet.. It weighs about 800 pounds and traverses the ice on two repurposed snowmobile tracks. Because it’s powered entirely by solar energy, there’s no danger of introducing additional pollution to Greenland’s pristine polar environments.
A ground-penetrating radar powered by two rechargeable batteries rests on the back of the rover. The radar sends radio wave pulses into the ice sheet, and the waves bounce off buried features, informing researchers about the characteristics of the snow and ice layers.