VolcanoBot: Journey to the Center of the Earth

A few weeks ago, I encamped opposite an active Volcano in Costa Rica.  As I was traveling with my family to Arenal, all the kids were starting to feel a little anxious about a possible eruption.  Volcanos are one of the last frontiers on earth to explore, however the extreme conditions make it next to impossible (for a human) to investigate.

Earlier this week, NASA announced its latest mission, exploring inner earth. Space may be vast, but the planets can be pretty cramped – especially when it comes to volcanoes.  This is unfortunate because the difficult to navigate fissures that are a major volcanic feature contain clues as to the interior of planets and moons and the mechanisms that formed them.  To help learn more, NASA is dropping miniature robots, called VolcanoBots, down crevices inaccessible to humans as a way of extracting information about volcanoes on and off the Earth.

VolcanoBot 1 in a lava tube (Image: NASA/JPL/Caltech)

VolcanoBot 1 (shown above) was based on NASA’s Durable Reconnaissance and Observation Platform (DROP) and was created by NASA postdoctoral fellow Carolyn Parcheta. and robotics researcher Aaron Parness at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. Measuring 12 in (30cm) long with 6.7 in (17 cm) wheels, it was designed to navigate into the narrow fissures that are a common feature of volcanoes on Earth, Mars, Mercury, and the moons of Enceladus and Europa, and to retrieve data that may provide insights into how these volcanoes formed.

In May of last year, VolcanoBot 1 was sent down a fissure at Mount Kilauea volcano on the island of Hawaii (see video below). During this, it descended to 82 ft (25 m) in two locations, which was the limit of its tether, though not the bottom of the unexpectedly deep fissure. In addition, the robot built up a 3D map of the crevice, and discovered that surface bulges on the volcano were reflected underground.

“In order to eventually understand how to predict eruptions and conduct hazard assessments, we need to understand how the magma is coming out of the ground,” says Parcheta. “This is the first time we have been able to measure it directly, from the inside, to centimeter-scale accuracy.”

The JPL team’s next step will be to build an improved robot called VolcanoBot 2, which will have a longer tether, stronger motors, better communications, and the ability to store data in onboard memory.  It will also be smaller at only 10 in (25 cm) long with 5 in (12 cm) wheels. According to Parcheta, these modifications will allow the robot to go deeper while dragging fewer cords behind it. In addition, it will have improved cameras, which will be able to pan and tilt. VolcanoBot 2 is scheduled to be deployed at Kilauea in March.

VolcanoBot is just one example of the many possibilities robots have now enabled us to explore.  Once the tether is removed the possibilities could be literally endless, who knows they may even discover the hidden world of the Zarn.

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