NASA’s JPL is currently exploring an innovative robotic concept called SPARROW (Steam Propelled Autonomous Retrieval Robot for Ocean Worlds) that would would use steam propulsion to hop across of icy terrains like that on Jupiter’s moon Europa. This moon is speculated to have massive subsurface oceans of salty water under a thick ice crust.
Roughly the size of a soccer ball, SPARROW consists thrusters, avionics and instruments encased in a protective spherical cage. The reason why it doesn’t run not on rocket fuel, but rather steam produced from melted ice, is to keep the environment pristine. It travels primarily through the air with short thrusts, which comes in handy when navigating Europa’s low-gravity environment, since there would be no atmospheric drag to slow the robot down.
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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 which could be dangerous to ground-based vehicles] 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.