This week, in the Mexican oil city of Tampico, an orb-like, robotic submarine begins its 1,000-foot plunge to the bottom of an underwater cavern, the largest sinkhole in the world. As part of the NASA-sponsored DEPTHX project, the autonomous robot, endearingly called "Clementine," will probe exotic rocks and microbes that may be the key to finding life on Europa, Jupiter's largest moon.
Last Saturday, ranch hands of Rancho la Azufrosa helped get Clementine out of storage.
According to NASA's current plans, it'll be at least 30 years before robots get to airless, ice-crusted Europa. Despite its frigid clime, astrobiologists have found evidence of liquid water and thermal energy sources on Europa, leading many to claim that it's one of the most likely targets for finding life in our solar system.
For now, it seems this Mexican cavern is Earth's best analog of the geological (and perhaps, biological) conditions on Europa.
Tampico's sinkhole has never been explored before, though at least one diver has died trying. The 3,300-pound Clementine, designed by engineers at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute and managed by geologists at the University of Texas at Austin, will guide herself through the cavern using information from hundreds of constantly updated 3-D maps that her own sensors and computers are making.
The researchers will maintain a webpage and blog of the two-week expedition, including a field journal and lots of great photos.
*Update!* From May 17-21, Marc Airhart, a science writer from the University of Texas at Austin, will be posting mission updates from the field.
Image courtesy of the DEPTHX research team at the University of Texas at Austin