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NASA’s Robot to Explore Fissure in Volcanoes

Researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are busy developing robots to explore volcanoes. The research has implications for extraterrestrial volcanoes.

While VolcanoBot 1 was tested at Kilauea volcano in Hawaii,a lighter, smaller VolcanoBot 2 is likely to be tested this year.

Carolyn Parcheta, a NASA postdoctoral fellow based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said, “We don’t know exactly how volcanoes erupt. We have models but they are all very, very simplified. This project aims to help make those models more realistic.”

On both Earth and Mars, fissures are the most common physical features from which magma erupts. According to Pracheta, “This is probably true for the previously active volcanoes on the moon, Mercury, Enceladus and Europa, although the mechanism of volcanic eruption, whether past or present, on these other planetary bodies is unknown.

Meanwhile, JPL Robotics researcher, Aaron Parness said, “In the last few years, NASA spacecraft have sent back incredible pictures of caves, fissures and what look like volcanic vents on Mars and the moon. We don’t have the technology yet to explore them, but they are so tantalizing!”

VolcanoBot1 was a two-wheeled robot, with a length of 12 inches and 6.7-inch wheels. It is a spinoff of a different robot that Parness’s laboratory developed, the Durable Reconnaissance and Observation Platform (DROP). Parcheta said, “We took that concept and redesigned it to work inside a volcano.”

However, the robot was able to descend to depths of 82 feet in two locations on the fissure, although it could have gone deeper with a longer tether, as the bottom was not reached on either descent.

Amid it enables the researchers to put together a 3-D map of the fissure. It found that the fissure did not appear to pinch shut, although VolcanoBot 1 didn’t reach the bottom. The researchers plan to return to the site and go even deeper to investigate further.

VolcanoBot 2 is smaller and lighter than its predecessor, at a length of 10 inches (25 centimeters). Its vision center can tip up and down, with the ability to turn and look at features around it.

“It has better mobility, stronger motors and smaller (5 inch, or 12 centimeter) wheels than the VolcanoBot 1. We’ve decreased the amount of cords that come up to the surface when it’s in a volcano,” Parcheta said.

While VolcanoBot 1 sent data to the surface directly from inside the fissure, data will be stored onboard VolcanoBot 2. VolcanoBot 2 has an electrical connection that is more secure and robust so that researchers can use the 3-D sensor’s live video feed to navigate.

It will, however, be tested in early March.

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