Robot finds fish beneath Antarctic ice, could be used to explore Europa

When a group of scientists drilled through 2,430 feet of ice in Antarctica to get to the water underneath, they only expected to find a few microbes here and there. Instead, they discovered a thriving community of fish and crustaceans -- all thanks to a remote-controlled robot that could one day also be used to explore one of Jupiter's moon. It took the tubular robot called Deep-SCINI (Submersible Capable of under Ice Navigation and Imaging) 45 minutes just to traverse the hole made by pumping hot water through the Ross Ice Shelf. It eventually settled three feet above the very bottom, where up to 20 and 30 fish swam close to gaze at its lights.

The camera-equipped machine can operate up to a depth of 6,500 feet, but it only had to brave 33-feet-deep waters for this mission. That space is sandwiched between thousands of feet of ice and the seabed, making it such a harsh environment with very little food and no sunlight. So when the ground crew spotted the first fish through the robot's camera, they all broke into applause. They were surprised not only by the fact that there's marine life in those waters, but also because Deep-SCINI worked perfectly on its first actual dive. In addition to discovering an animal population living in a hostile environmental, the team also retrieved samples and gathered data necessary to study how the continent's ice sheets are being affected by rising temperatures.

Deep-SCINI was developed by scientists from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It has a predecessor simply called SCINI (pictured at the very top) that also discovered a new species of sea anemone underneath Antarctic glacial ice, though that one can only withstand waters up to 1,000 feet in depth. Despite the machine's terrestrial purpose, NASA funded its development, as the agency is deeply invested in the exploration of Antarctica's ice shelves in preparation for potential missions to Europa. That Jovian moon has a frozen surface similar to Antarctic's ice shelves, and scientists think it might be hiding an ocean underneath. While NASA hasn't sent anything there yet, it has a concept mission called Europa Clipper, which will soon begin development thanks to the Congress earmarking $100 million for it.

[Image credit: Frank Rack, ANDRILL Science Management Office, University of Nebraska-Lincoln/ Deep-SCINI UNL-Andrill SMO]