A tiny red submarine, about the size of a baseball bat, has allowed researchers to access one of the last unexplored places on Earth: a buried lake in a remote region of Antarctica.Lake Whillans is a subglacial lake that sits more than 2,000 feet below the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. In late January, scientists successfully drilled through the ice to reach the lake. The operation is part of the WISSARD project, or Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling.
Drilling the borehole was a feat within itself. But that’s only part of the expedition. The ability to see beyond the borehole, and survey the lake floor, is what really interests scientists. Access to this environment can tell scientists what kind of life lives down there, and provide a history of changes in climate and ice sheet behaviour, NASA said in a statement.
Alberto Behar, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, worked with students from Arizona State University to develop and test submarine technology that would enable researchers to do this. NASA funded the project.
The sub is equipped with high-resolution cameras and chemical sensors. It then sends all of this information back through cables attached to a “mothership” that stays on the surface with the scientists.
There were technical challenges involved in every part of the process.
Just to get to the buried lake researchers had to haul a dozen sleds packed with drills, giant camping tents, and other equipment more than 700 miles over 10 days.
The borehole is also relatively small (even for a micro-submarine). The team had to get the vehicle down the hole safely, and have it all work at a distance without getting frozen or stuck in the lake.
When the submarine finally got to the bottom of the lake, the team used its high-resolution cameras to take pictures. They also measured the salinity and temperature, and collected lake water samples to search for life.
“It is an exploration into a new environment never seen by humans, and an ecosystem that could bring forth new organisms never studied before,” Behar told Business Insider in an email.
The images tell scientists that the lake is filled with something called glacial till, a very fine sediment created by the ice grinding rocks as it flows over them.
Researchers had expected the lake to be 10 meters deep from previous measurements, but they found that the lake was only about 1.6 meters deep where they entered, says Behar. They also found microbes living in a nutrient-poor environment, which they had anticipated.
The tiny submarine isn’t limited to exploring subglacial lakes. It can be used to explore any aquatic setting, including lakes and oceans, as long as the currents aren’t too strong, says Behar.
The next step will be to make the technology even better so they can send it out again at the beginning of next year.
Watch the video below to see students testing the robotic submarine:
Embedded video from
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory California Institute of Technology
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