Antarctica-Europa: Diving Robot Finds Life

Scientists developed a new robot to delve deep under Antarctic ice to the seafloor below, hoping to find signs of life in the cold and harsh environment. They were surprised to find more than just signs.

Researchers at Georgia Tech Research Institute built a new robot that could handle going 1.5 kilometers (0.93 miles) below sea level and travel as far away as 3 kilometers (1.86 miles), recording video for researchers to study; they dubbed the robot “Icefin.” After cutting a footlong wide hole 20 meters (66 feet) deep into the Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica’s largest ice shelf (about the size of Spain and situated on the southern side of the continent), they dropped Icefin down the frozen shaft and dove it down 500 meters to the seafloor.

What they recorded was a surprising amount of life. Principle research engineer Mick West said in a statement that “Biologists… were just amazed at the amount of biology at that location which included sea stars, sponges and anemones that were at the ocean bottom.” The sea life at the bottom dwells in conditions of water temperature below freezing, no sunlight, and the densest water on the planet.

Antarctica-Europa Diving Robot Finds Life - Clapway

Assistant Professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech Britney Schmidt said that “We saw evidence of a complex community on the seafloor that has never been observed before, and unprecedented detail on the ice-ocean interface that hasn’t been achieved before.” Schmidt went on to say that the research has more than just an Earthly focus. Icefin was also a test to see what sort of probe design would work best to explore under the ice of other planets and moons — such as Europa, Jupiter’s moon, which has ice-capped oceans that the researchers note is very similar to the sea underneath the Ross Ice Shelf.

A difficult obstacle for the engineering Icefin was the navigation system. Because it had to go under the ice, GPS would not work. Instead the researchers used SLAM, or simultaneous localization and mapping. SLAM uses complex algorithms, using factors such as the features of the ice above and the seafloor below, to triangulate its position. Along with finding Icefin’s position, West noted that it helps create a rough 3D framework to understand the world below the ice.

For more arctic  breath takers,  watch Eric Larsen’s visual story about his polar journey through the North Pole, the South Pole, and Mount Everest: