NASA unveils the soccer ball-sized SPARROW (Steam Propelled Autonomous Retrieval Robot for Ocean Worlds) and it consists of a system of thrusters, avionics as well as instruments, all encased in a protective spherical cage. It runs on steam produced from melted ice to keep the environment pristine for research and travels through the air using short thrusts, or in other words, hopping. Read more for a video and additional information.
This robot depends on a lander serving as the home base, where it would then mine the ice and melt it down before loading the water for propulsion. SPARROW then heats the water inside its engines, producing bursts of steam to give a boost off the surface. When it’s low on steam, the robot would return to the lander for more, while also dropping off any scientific samples for analysis. Multiple robots could be sent together in a swarm to a specific location to maximize scientific investigation.
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The terrain on Europa is likely highly complex. It could be porous, it might be riddled with crevasses, there might be meters-high penitentes” – long blades of ice known to form at high latitudes on Earth – “that would stop most robots in their tracks. But SPARROW has total terrain agnosticism; it has complete freedom to travel across an otherwise inhospitable terrain,” said Gareth Meirion-Griffith, JPL roboticist and the lead researcher of the concept.