A team of scientists recently deployed a “first-of-its-kind” robotic vehicle that dove to depths never before seen under the Antarctic Ross Ice Shelf. The vehicle went through a hole only 12-inches in diameter, traveled through 65 feet of ice, then dove through another 500 feet of sea water until it reached the ocean floor. There, a camera mounted on the robotic rover captured footage of the sea floor unlike any seen before.
The vehicle, called “Icefin,” carried a payload capable of surveying the sea floor and identifying life that survives under such harsh conditions. The video footage Icefin captures will also give scientists an idea of the impact of climate change on this area of the planet as well as provide understanding of the types of life that thrive in light-free, cold conditions.
Further, the technology used to develop the robotic craft will also help scientists develop exploratory vehicles for other missions, such as on Europa, Jupiter’s moon. The oceans of Antarctica are very similar to those on Europa, according to Phys.org. “We built a vehicle that’s a hybrid between the really small probes and the ocean-going vessels, and we can deploy it through bore holes on Antarctica,” said Britney Schmidt, an assistant professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Tech, and the principle investigator for the Icefin project.
Icefin is part of the SIMPLE program, which stands for the Sub Ice Marine and Planetary Analog EcoSystem, funded by NASA. The Icefin returned with its crew in December 2014 and will make its Arctic debut next summer. Hopefully, it will return to Antarctica in the fall of 2016.
What makes the Icefin different than other vehicles is that it’s thin while still being able to travel where it needs to go. The vehicle has instrumentation on board for both “navigation and ocean science,” according to Mark West, Georgia Tech Research Institute principal research engineer.
“We saw evidence of a complex community on the sea floor that has never been observed before, and unprecedented detail on the ice-ocean interface that hasn’t been achieved before,” Schmidt said. The amount of life on the ocean floor, like sea stars, anemones and sponges, amazed the biologists at McMurdo Station.
A partnership between the Georgia Tech Research Institute and the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (EAS) enabled the team to design, build and deploy Icefin under the ice in less than a year. Traditional design cycles for these types of vehicles typically are two to three years, according to Phys.org. Designing for such an extreme environment meant that many modifications had to be made, like to the electronics systems which typically are not designed for such low temperatures.
“Icefin is the most capable small vehicle that’s been down there,” Schmidt said. “What’s really rewarding is that at the same time, we were able to involve some outstanding students in the design, build and deployment of the vehicle.”
Images via Georgia Tech Research Institute