NASA has introduced a few robotic prototypes designed to deal with space’s iciest planets, including Jupiter’s moon Europa. These prototypes are outfitted with various types of technology that can handle traveling across icy landscapes, burrowing through very deep ice to discover what lies beneath a planet’s crust, take samples out of frozen lands, and more. The tech was made as part of the research project Ocean Worlds Mobility and Sensing from the Space Technology Mission Directorate.
Though we don’t have any immediate plans to head out to icy moons like Titan on a search for life, the space agency does anticipate doing so in a decade or two, giving it a solid ten or fifteen years to develop the necessary technology. Among that technology is a robotic device using a special vacuum-sealed chamber with a heat source to cut through thick pieces of ice without clogging, cooling down, or getting frozen in place.
Similarly, researchers have worked on developing technology for a so-called cryo-rover, a rover that would be capable of traveling on freezing, frozen moons and planets in a way similar to how Curiosity travels Mars. These icy planets pose some big problems, though, including gas jets, ice fissures, and loose granular ice that can stop up the rover’s wheels.
The space agency anticipates one day taking samples from the frozen surface of places like Europa, which necessitates the ability to bore through ice and cut out samples. One prototype imagines different ways to get samples, including a boom arm, a projectile that launches a sample-gathering device over a hundred feet, and an ice-gripping claw.