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Searching for Aliens… on Earth

A diverse team of specialists works to create an ice-penetrating “cryobot” to find life under the ice caps and beyond.

Searching for life on other planets comes with extreme challenges, so it makes sense to start out field testing in our own extreme environment: Antarctica. NASA has awarded a team almost $3 million to create an autonomous cryobot capable of searching for life under the icy continent.

The plan for Spindle (Sub-glacial Polar Ice Navigation, Descent, and Lake Exploration) is to have the cryobot melt through the ice to get to the untouched water below, where it will deploy a second vehicle to perform recon and sample collection. By building a robot capable of this feat here on Earth, the team hopes to prepare for similar missions across the galaxy, such as on one of the icy moons of Jupiter or Saturn.

The team is working with partners to develop a super strong laser to allow the robot to melt a tunnel through the ice cap. "Melt," "ice cap," and "laser" are not usually words we want to hear in the same sentence, but this checks out. The scientists say the water re-freezes behind the cryobot as it moves deeper into the ice, and the cryobot will have to re-melt a path in order to return to the surface.

The project is bringing together great minds in a variety of fields as it requires advancements in software and hardware combined with a deep understanding of subjects such as microbiology and glaciology (yes, it’s a word) to make a successful cryobot.

“Once you get under the ice and in the water, communications are extremely limited, so these robots have to be able to function on their own in a totally new, unknown environment,” said Dr. Kristof Richmond, software lead and project manager for Spindle. “There’s no GPS, no radio, you can’t see very far –it’s like trying to find your way through a foggy forest in the middle of the night with just a little pen light.”


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