A hot-nosed robot melted its way 75 feet into an Arctic glacier in a test of NASA technology that one day could probe for life deep under ice on Earth, Mars and Jupiter's frozen moon Europa.
The cylindrical Cryobot (its copper tip heated to temperatures up to 195 degrees) took four days to bore into the glacier on the island of Spitsbergen, north of the Arctic Circle.
"It was basically like a hot iron against the ice," said Lloyd French, who was among scientists from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology involved in October's test.
Early versions of cylindrical robots designed to explore harsh environments have been tested in California's Monterey Bay Aquarium, in the ocean off Hawaii and at JPL, where scientists simulated glacial conditions.
The more-advanced Cyrobot (3.3 feet long and about 5 inches in diameter) was developed with an eye toward space and the prospect of missions to Mars and Europa, which is carpeted with thick ice that blankets what may be an ocean of liquid water.
But even if budget woes at NASA keep it on Earth, researchers believe the $1.3 million machine could search for microbial life in places like Lake Vostok, which lies beneath a thick shield of Antarctic ice.
"By no means is Earth merely a testing ground for Europa and Mars," said Frank Carsey, a Cryobot scientist at JPL. "There are many interesting environments on Earth where a Cryobot could be the best technology for conducting safe and effective scientific studies."