IceWorm ascending an ice wall in the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Researchers used the frozen vertical surface as a testing ground for the robot before it went into the field.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

What do you need for exploration of icy worlds in our solar system – IceWorm of course!

Robotic work is underway that could lead to automaton treks to the frozen plains of Enceladus, Eruopa  or Pluto, as well as the polar ice canyons of Mars.

The robot is the first of its kind designed to scale up icy cliffs; someday, the robot may take samples in places that scientists have never reached before.

IceWorm could crawl off a lander to scoop up samples deep in ice fissures for later scientific analysis.

Microbial life

Aaron Curtis, the lead designer behind IceWorm and a postdoctoral scholar at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, detailed how IceWorm works at the recent American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting 2018.

The ice-climbing robot IceWorm scales a scalloped wall of glacial ice in a cave at Mount St. Helens in August 2018.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In an informative article by AGU’s Jenessa Duncombe in the group’s Eos Buzz newsletter, Curtis hopes that IceWorm will someday climb in the caves that inspired it. “I would be really interested to see a trip go back to Mount Erebus [in Antarctica] and explore a pristine cave where no one’s entered,” Curtis explains. He tested prototype robot “feet” with anchoring and ice sampling capabilities in fumarolic ice caves on Mt. Erebus in 2016.

“The caves that have higher levels of volcanic gases might be the ones that are more fertile for microbial life,” Curtis adds. “I would be very fascinated to see what lives in them.”

Inchworm science

The 1.4-meter robot is made of hollow aluminum tubes and rotary joints, holds on to the icy wall by nesting its two feet into the ice with steel alpinist screws.

To climb, the robot simply unscrews one foot, curls its body until the two feet are near each other, and refastens its free foot to the wall. It then unscrews the second foot, lengthens its body forward toward its destination, and screws back into the wall. It repeats the dance over and over, says Curtis, so that the robot “inchworms up the wall.”

Dexterous feet

IceWorm’s success lies in its dexterous feet. Each foot is outfitted with ice screws equipped with a pressure sensor that directs how hard to drill into the ice, striving for the right balance between rotation and forward thrust.

A 3-D rendering on the researchers’ computers shows IceWorm’s body position in real time and lets researchers drag its free foot to the next stop on the wall.

Base camp in the crater of Mount St. Helens in August 2018. Researchers explored the fumarolic ice caves to test IceWorm in action.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Successful testing

In June 2018, an ice climbing robot inside firn caves and glacier caves of Mount St Helens. The crater area has been progressively covered by a layer of snow, firn, and glacier ice since as early as 1986.

After 8 hours of testing at Mount St. Helens, Curtis called it IceWorm’s first “successful test,” and he looks ahead to future development.

Curtis also brought an ice-climbing robot to Mount Rainier — the highest mountain in the U.S. state of Washington — this past July and August and demonstrated the success of robotic “hands” containing ice screws. He showed that the fasteners penetrated into the icy walls and ceilings of the fumarole caves, providing a grip strong enough to hold the robot and a backpack.


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