While the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) typically devotes the bulk of their focus to the solar system, they have decided to shift some back onto Mother Earth. NASA scientists working with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have designed a small robot to explore volcanoes. The robotic model was dubbed VolcanoBot.
The tiny robot measures one foot long and seven inches tall, with one wheel on each side. It is a perfect size for accurately mapping the interiors of volcanoes and exploring where humans cannot. Last year, the device was able to successfully dig over 80 feet deep into a volcano before it could no longer continue. With the data that VolcanoBot provides, it may become easier for scientists to predict volcanic eruptions.
When volcanoes erupt, magma spews out of fissures on the surface, using the narrow crevices to escape and flow downhill. Carolyn Parcheta, a postdoctoral member of NASA, stated that besides the magma flow, very little can be predicted of volcanic eruptions at the moment. She hopes that this new project will help improve the quality of their knowledge on the subject, as well as their models.
NASA has put some faith in her abilities to coordinate the experiment, as she has been working toward this since she was in the sixth grade. Parcheta learned of her inherent interest in volcanoes after watching an episode on lava during a science television show. She has worked her way through school and beyond and has been dubbed the next “great explorer” by NASA. The title was granted to her after she became a finalist for the National Geographic’s Expedition Granted campaign, for which she won $50,000.
Parcheta will no doubt be leading the exploration later this year in March, with the premiere mission of the updated model, VolcanoBot 2. NASA and JPL’s new robot design, with a length now two inches less, will be used to try and explore Hawaiian volcano Kilauea. The updates also include a camera that can be remotely panned up and down for greater visibility and real time visuals.
There is a risk, though. While the volcano’s fissures are currently empty, the mountain is still technically an active site. The parts of Kilauea’s interior still filled with lava do put a limit on what can be explored, at least on Earth’s volcanoes.
Aaron Parness, an associate of NASA, explained the mission’s true initiative. In recent years, NASA rockets have delivered stunning photographs of what appear to be volcanic vents on both the moon and Mars. The technology to explore them has yet to be invented, but the possibility is, without a doubt, enticing. Working with JPL’s Parcheta, the space agency plans on bridging that gap by using the Earth’s volcanoes for practice. Fortunately, NASA and JPL are learning much about how the volcanoes erupt here, and that holds many benefits by itself.
NASA, JPL and Parcheta will be hard at work in the upcoming years developing future designs of VolcanoBot, all the while simultaneously preparing for their robotic exploration missions throughout the solar system. When the project comes to that point, many more secrets behind the other planets will come to light.
By Matthew Austin Bowers