Researchers are testing a robotic, alien-hunting laser drill

While Mars gets all the press, a group of NASA scientists are laying the groundwork for a more exotic destination: the ice-covered moon of Europa, locked in orbit above Jupiter. The oceans beneath the ice are thought to be fertile grounds for alien life, so scientists are eager to explore it if they can figure out how. And since the first step is drilling through the ice, the group is testing out its laser-powered drill on the Matanuska glacier in Alaska to see how it holds up in the field.

Recent discoveries of active under-ice oceans on Europa and Enceladus have kindled speculation that life may exist at the outer reaches of our solar system. But to prove it, we’re going to have to employ devices like the one recently tested by Stone Aerospace researchers in Alaska. Called VALKYRIE, the Stone Aeorospace cryobot (along with some help from NASA) is powered by a 5,000-watt laser carried through a fibre optic wire (peace treaties prevent the use of nuclear-powered devices). The upgraded system can carry more power than electric cables, allowing the automated drill to dig deeper than before. Shaped like a torpedo, it’s 5.3 feet (1.6 meters) tall and 17.7 inches (45 centimeters) in diameter. It’ll eventually be able to deploy smaller robots carried inside that would be released into liquid water to map the seafloor and scan for signs of life. Researchers are hoping to test a prototype of these marine robots, called Sunfish, next year in Antarctica. See a diagram here.

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