The Wall Street Journal

Meet the Robot Explorers Hunting for Alien Life

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Scientists from The Georgia Institute of Technology are using a robot called ICEFIN to explore the world beneath Antarctica's sea ice. WSJ followed the team during a recent deployment to find out why the project might one day enable exploration of the solar system's far-flung ocean worlds.


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At NASA, we have always answered the innate call to explore and our achievements have changed the course of history. Now, we're returning to the Moon under the Artemis program to learn to live and work on another world for the benefit of humanity.

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(bright music)
- [Narrator] Every time we go down there
it's probably something that no one's ever seen.
But the firsts aren't necessarily important,
except for how they teach you
how to deal with new challenges.
We're hear at Barne Glacier which is just outside
McMurdo station in Antarctica.
This is one of the sights where we're using
our underwater vehicle Icefin
to explore from the edge of the glacier
under the sea ice to the sea floor.
Icefin is a hybrid autonomous
and remotely operated underwater vehicle,
and what it's doing is measuring
the properties of the water column,
the ice and the sea floor, and searching
for biological communities as well.
Welcome to, this is dive number zero one five,
nine fifteen.
Our main science questions here
is how does the ocean affect the ice, and vice versa.
- [Male Voice] Alright, we're ready to go.
- Alright.
- [Male Voice] Let's put her in the water.
- Exactly how glaciers move
along the continent, or along the sea floor,
those processes are all different for every glacier
and it's one of the things that we understand the least
in the whole system.
And so, we can use a vehicle like Icefin
to actually get under the ice and get up close
to the physics where it's happening.
Antarctica is one of these places
where we get to stretch our understanding of our problem.
So if we're thinking about how the ocean influences ice,
that really is the game at Europa.
Europa is the innermost icy moon of Jupiter
and what's really cool about it,
is that on the outside of that moon
it has about about a 15 to 30 kilometer ice shell,
overlaying a 100 kilometer ocean.
So we come here to Antarctica
which has the thickest ice in the world
in order to understand how the ocean and the ice exchange.
We have a tether that connects the vehicle
to computers on the top side,
and we sit in the control room,
which is really just a tent, and drive the vehicle
using a PlayStation controller.
So let's go ahead and dive down.
- Okay, I'll adjust heading
to maybe about 45 degrees port
so we're headed straight at it.
- If you haven't been to a place,
it's hard to imagine how you explore it.
And so, the only hope for doing it there
is to do it well here.
If we want to, we can rotate around
and then back to the fissure.
- So come back starboard?
- Yep, come back starboard.
You need to figure out what's right and wrong
about your assumptions before you go,
so that you make sure you bring the right things with you.

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