NASA researchers are developing robots to explore crevices of volcanoes where humans cannot go in order to gain new insights about these wondrous geological features.
Carolyn Parcheta, a postdoctoral fellow at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, plans to take a robot, called VolcanoBot 2, to explore Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano in March.
The research has implications for extraterrestrial volcanoes. On both Earth and Mars, fissures are the most common physical features from which magma erupts.
This is probably also 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, Parcheta 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,” said Parcheta.
“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 tantalising!”JPL robotics researcher Aaron Parness said.
“We’re trying to bridge that gap using volcanoes here on Earth for practice. We’re learning about how volcanoes erupt here on Earth, too, and that has a lot of benefits in its own
right,” Parness said.
Parcheta, Parness, and JPL co-advisor Karl Mitchell first explored this idea last year using a two-wheeled robot they call VolcanoBot 1, with a length of 12 inches and 6.7-inch wheels.
For their experiments in May 2014, they had VolcanoBot 1 roll down a fissure – a crack that erupts magma – that is now inactive on the active Kilauea volcano in Hawaii.
Finding preserved and accessible fissures is rare. VolcanoBot 1 was tasked with mapping the pathways of magma from May 5 to 9, 2014.
It 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.