The Quest for Extraterrestrial Life


RWTH researchers are developing a fully autonomous miniature diving robot


Two of the most promising candidates for life in space are Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus. Both are covered by a thick crust of ice, under which oceans are thought to exist.

Since September 2020, the Federal Ministry of Economics and Energy has been funding the TRIPLE-nanoAUV1 joint project of the "Technologies for Rapid Ice Penetration and Subglacial Lake Exploration" (TRIPLE) project line of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Bonn. The project line develops key technologies for future space missions to icy moons.

In TRIPLE-nanoAUV1, a concept for an exploration system for scientific observations in waters under ice is being designed. The system consists of a fully autonomous miniature diving robot (nanoAUV), a semi-autonomous melting probe that melts through the ice crust to the liquid ocean expected underneath and acts as a carrier system for the diving robot, and an astrobiology laboratory (AstroBioLab) for the analysis of liquid and sediment samples.

Three RWTH Institutes Involved

Three RWTH institutions contribute to TRIPLE-nanoAUV1: The Institute of Automatic Control, headed by Professor Dirk Abel, is developing methods for safe, robust and autonomous underwater navigation and for the control of the diving robot. The Institute of Physics III B, headed by Professor Christopher Wiebusch, is developing the melting probe, a surface station, as well as an acoustic system to help located and navigate the miniature diving robot in the subglacial ocean. Led by Professor Julia Kowalski, a research team from the Aachen Institute for Advanced Study in Computational Engineering Science (AICES) is working on the mathematical description of the ice sheet in order to determine how the meltdown probe will have to move within the ice layer.

Further project partners include the University of Bremen, the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence, Technische Universität Braunschweig, the Gesellschaft für Systementwicklung und Instrumentierung (GSI) mbH, the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research, and DSI Aerospace Technologie GmbH.