Tag Archives: polar ice

1.21 Gigawatts : NASA Snowmo-bot Takes to the Ice


-Sarah Keartes

The Goddard Remotely Operated Vehicle for Exploration and Research (GROVER)  is a six foot tall, 800 pound, solar powered, autonomous NASA robot—and it’s bound for no-man’s land.

Comprised of two towering solar panels, an onboard computer, and rechargeable batteries, GROVER will not rely on wheels for locomotion like its famously cute Martian counterpart, CURIOSITY. Instead, the bot rests on two tracks of re-purposed rough-terrain snowmobile tracks—an important design element as it’s headed to Greenland.

That’s right! Earlier this month, our own Casey Klekas told readers about sending some of Earth’s finest on a one-way trip into space. Well, NASA is returning the favor by sending their newest scientific rover on a mission to the blue planet.

Greenland, the largest island on Earth, is located at the intersection of the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans (just east of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago). Despite its misnomer, over 85 percent of the island is covered in a thick sheet of ice, 3.21 km (two miles) thick at the center. This giant glacier represents about 10 percent of the Earth’s freshwater reserve, and like all polar ice, it’s heating up.

“Greenland’s surface layer vaulted into the news in summer 2012 when higher than normal temperatures caused surface melting across about 97 percent of the ice sheet,” the NASA team stated in a press release. A full melt of the glaciated island could result in a seven meter rise in the world’s oceans.

Until now, glaciological study on the island has been accomplished with radar towing snowmobiles or airplanes, but Glaciologist Laura Koenig, a science adviser on the project has high hopes for GROVER’s ability to outshine man-powered research.

“The hope is that GROVER can collect much more data than humans could on the ground. When we’re on snowmobiles, we could do 50 kilometers a day—that would be a difficult day. You get cold, and need to stop,” she said.

Once deployed at “Summit Camp,” a National Science Foundation (NSF) research station located on the highest point of Greenland, GROVER will cruise the ice at an average speed of 1.2 miles per hour, collecting data.

The onboard radar “sends radio wave pulses into the ice sheet, and the waves bounce off buried features, informing researchers about the characteristics of the snow and ice layers,” NASA explains.

Though GROVER travels far slower than a snowmobile, because the sun never sets in the Arctic horizon during summer, the solar-powered rover will work around the clock—something its human counterparts could never do in such a harsh climate.

NASA rovers have become quite accustomed to working long shifts in intolerable conditions. In this way, GROVER will operate much like any other spacecraft does.

“GROVER is just like a spacecraft but it has to operate on the ground…it has to survive unattended for months in a hostile environment, with just a few commands to interrogate it and find out its status and give it some directions for how to accommodate situations it finds itself in,” Michael Comberiate, a retired NASA engineer, said.

But don’t worry; poor GROVER won’t be completely alone. A ro-buddy play-date is set for early June when it will be joined on the glacier by Dartmouth University’s Cool Robot. This rover, also solar powered, will tow a variety of instrument packages to enhance the glaciological study.

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Image by Gabriel Trisca, Boise State University.