Spaceflight Insider

NASA developing AI for future exploration of extraterrestrial subsurface oceans

Artist's concept of a subsurface ocean on Jupiter's moon Europa.

An artist’s concept of a subsurface ocean on Jupiter’s moon Europa. Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

NASA is developing technology that could enable autonomous navigation for future underwater drones studying subsurface oceans on icy moons like Jupiter’s Europa. The agency is working on artificial intelligence (AI) that would allow submersibles to make their own decisions during exploration of extraterrestrial water worlds.

Space exploration missions and astronomical observations in recent years have shown that our Solar System is abundant in water and could host at least several subsurface liquid oceans. The scientific community assumes water exists beneath the crust of Europa as well as on other icy moons like Saturn’s Dione and Ganymede.

Compelling evidence of hidden oceans on dwarf planets Ceres and Pluto have also been presented recently, thereby proving that many mysteries may lie deep underground of these frigid celestial bodies, waiting to be uncovered by underwater robotic explorers.

NASA is aware of the emerging challenges it must face if it wants to successfully explore subsurface oceans on Europa and other icy worlds. Such underwater drones would focus on searching for microbial life in this harsh environment which strongly impedes nominal communications with mission control on Earth. Therefore, the key issue here is to develop a highly autonomous submarine-like probe capable of making decisions on its own in real-time in order to continue exploration and research uninterrupted.

JPL's Steve Chien with several of the underwater drones used in a research project earlier this year. Chien, along with his research collaborators, are developing artificial intelligence for these drones. Photo Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech.

JPL’s Steve Chien with several of the underwater drones used in a research project earlier this year. Chien, along with his research collaborators, is developing artificial intelligence for these drones. Photo Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

“Depending on the exact mission concept under consideration, autonomous underwater vehicles exploring ocean worlds will need to operate autonomously for days to months,” Steve Chien of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) told “Within this time frame, they must manage their own resources, explore a largely unknown environment, including navigating to and from a single point of insertion which also serves as a communications link to the outside world.”

Chien leads the Artificial Intelligence Group at JPL, which is currently developing AI for underwater drones. From Aug. 26 to Sept. 4, 2016, the team tested a fleet of coordinated drones in Monterey Bay, California, with the aim of detecting changes in temperature and salinity.

The fleet that was tested included three autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), two ocean gliders, and one Tethys-class Long-Range AUV. The system was complemented by a 300-meter resolution ROMS (Regional Ocean Modeling System) free-surface, terrain-following, primitive equations ocean model developed especially for this project and a suite of planning software.

The software identifies the location of specific scientific targets based on the ROMS output and autonomously determines the optimal sampling strategy for a heterogeneous array of autonomous vehicles.

During last year’s test runs, the fleet of these six small submersibles sensed how the ocean actively changed around them, which is something that is essential for the development of autonomous navigation systems. The gliders were deployed earlier in the summer to provide over a month of data prior to the intensive field program.

These tests were part of the team’s ongoing effort to design and plan future autonomous vehicles with the focus on further refining and demonstrating AI technologies. The next set of test runs is planned for spring 2017.

“We are developing mission concepts and developing some of the needed technologies as well as demonstrating technologies to Earth analogues and Earth science problems,” Chien said.

Given the fact that the main goal of future underwater drones exploring a subsurface ocean would be looking for microbial lifeforms, Chien proposes the probes should concentrate on searching for fissures in a planet’s surface known as hydrothermal vents. These features, which are commonly found in ocean basins, are perceived as potential life-supporting environments due to the geothermally heated water they emit. Furthermore, more general characterization of such an alien underground watery world would also be needed as it is a totally unknown and unexplored realm.

The team is convinced their project will provide a framework for designing robotic missions to extraterrestrial ice covered oceans.

“The vast majority of space exploration is conducted by robotic probes,” Chien said. “Increasing the autonomy in future missions is essential to both increasing the effectiveness of space exploration as well as exploring more distant, challenging environments, such as sub-ice oceans.”



Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.

Reader Comments

Look what humanity is doing. Preparing to be capable of exploring a hostile environment, millions and millions miles away from our home planet with autonomous robots. I think we won’t see much more than this in our lifetime.
And people still say that the space exploration is a waste of money…

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