The search for extraterrestrial life begins, often enough, on Earth. In this case, it's an Alaskan glacier, where the robot VALKYRIE is proving its ice-chomping abilities in a field test. VALKYRIE is supposed to one day land on Jupiter's moon, Europa, where it will drill through miles of ice to reach the liquid oceans that could harbour alien life.
With its oceans and gushing plumes of water, Europa has emerged as one of the top candidates for extraterrestrial life in our solar system. Back in 2o12, we wrote about the Deep Phreatic Thermal Explorer that will explore Europa's oceans. But to get there, we first have to drill through miles of ice, and for that, we need VALKYRIE. The robot will tunnel down to liquid water, where it will release the underwater explorer robots inside it.
New Scientist reporter Lisa Grossman was recently on hand to see VALKYRIE in action in Alaska. VALKYRIE doesn't drill through ice, like you might expect, but literally melts its way through. "The robot's burrowing strategy is to suck in water through valves in its nose, heat it internally and shoot it back out to melt a pocket in the ice that it can slide into," writes Grossman.
On the whole, the robot is a long, thin tube -- just a couple inches shy of an average woman and about a foot and a half in diameter. It melts about three feet of ice an hour. Since this is only a test, the version that makes it to Europa will be bigger and faster. There's another key difference too: VALKYRIE is powered by a 5000-watt laser in the Alaska field test. On Europa, it will likely have a small nuclear power source, eschewed here because of peace treaties that forbid nuclear-powered craft on ice.
A Europa mission is still many years off, but it's been gaining steam. NASA just recently put out a call for proposals on a scientific instruments for a Europa mission. It may be time to say it: move over, Mars. [New Scientist]