Science: NASA's New Robot

Ceci Connolly
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 15, 2007; 10:30 AM

Ceci Connolly, who writes this week's Monday Science Page feature, was online Tuesday, May 15 at 10:30 a.m. ET to discuss a new robot NASA is testing in Mexico that will eventually be used to explore Jupiter.

Read the story here: Mexican Sinkhole May Lead NASA to Jupiter (Post, May 14)

The transcript follows.


Ceci Connolly: Hello everyone. Welcome to the Post Science web chat. We're chatting about cenotes, or sinkholes, and a new NASA-funded robot that may some day be able to explore Jupiter's moon Europa.

Looking forward to your questions and comments.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Who is the robot named after? In Pittsburgh, our Clemente is Roberto Clemente, the baseball Hall of Famer who died tragically in a plane crash.

Ceci Connolly: The DEPTHX robot is nicknamed "Clementine" because of its appearance - round and orange -- like one of my favorite fruits.


Washington, D.C.: I think it's great that the government is actually using something for scientific purposes before sending it out into outer space! Is the cenote something that's been a mystery in Mexico? What do scientists expect their findings to show about the sinkhole? And how might these data be used beyond knowing whether the robot works or not.

Ceci Connolly: The cenote El Zacaton, and others in Mexico, have long been explored and appreciated by divers. Only recently have scientists realized the wealth of information living below the surface. Now, with this robot, scientists say they are able to collect data and samples from far deeper than a human can go.


Laramie, Wyo.: Dear Ms. Connolly,

I don't have a question specifically related to the robot. Rather, as a scientist and someone who has worked at the NSF, it seems like NASA gets so much press coverage compared to somewhere like the NSF. I was wondering if you have a perspective on this as a science reporter? What can non-NASA scientists doing exciting work do to get more press coverage?

Ceci Connolly: We get this sort of question often. Some agencies, individuals and companies seem to get more press attention than others. In the case of this robot project, NASA put up the $5 million so it was fairly natural for the space agency to get some coverage.

I can tell you that the next phase, known as ENDURANCE, which will explore lakes in Antarctica, the NSF is providing a great deal of logistical support so maybe that agency will get to toot its own horn a bit.


Silver Spring, Md.: One thing I learned from Discovery Channel's fabulous Planet Earth series was that the government of Mexico is very careful about allowing exploration of the sinkholes, because they are so easily damaged when heavy things (underwater cameras, scuba gear, presumably Volkswagon-sized robots) bump into the underwater formations. How is NASA able to ensure that Clemente won't damage the caverns it explores?

Ceci Connolly: Fabulous question and I'm not certain they can make guarantees. But I do know that the scientific team spent close to 2 years negotiating with the Mexican government for permission to explore the cenotes. Also, when the robot takes samples, it is using a very small prod -- about the size of a pinkie finger, which should minimize serious disruptions of the environment.


Washington, D.C.: Were there problems or issues that happened

Ceci Connolly: I'm not sure I understand this question. But, if you are asking whether the team has hit bumps along the way, absolutely!

On an earlier dive, Clementine got stuck and had trouble returning to the surface.

The next two weeks should be very interesting.


Garrett Park, Md.: How comparable the two environments (Mexico's sinkhole and Jupiter) are? Most likely not much. What good this trial means for future exploration in another planet when conditions are so different? Maybe in the Artic/Antartic conditions are a little bit more comparable, since temperature, lack of light, etc. could be more in the same direction.

Thank you,


Ceci Connolly: I'm chuckling because that's the same question my very wise editor Nils Bruzelius asked when I first proposed this story.

You are correct, the Mexico sinkhole environment is quite different from what we think we know about Europa. The importance of testing Clementine in the cenote was to make certain the robot is fully autonomous very deep underwater. If she performs well over the next two weeks in El Zacaton -- drawing the maps, collecting samples, taking photographs -- then the next target is Antartica where conditions are closer to Europa.


Arlington, Va.: To piggy back on the question about NSF -- how often do the two agencies work with each other ... I sometimes get the sense that they like to "compete" against one another, even if it's in a friendly way.

Ceci Connolly: Now, why would you think that???????

Your question gets at a very common problem in Washington. Agencies, commissions, etc. are always competing for dollars and attention. With a federal budget deficit and the cost of the Iraq war, virtually all other government-funded projects are struggling to get sufficient funding.


Amherst, N.Y.: What does this have to do with Jupiter?

Ceci Connolly: Jupiter, and more specifically its moon Europa, appears to be a "hot target" for life elsewhere. Scientists suspect this because of the enormous oceans on Europa.

The DEPTHX and ENDURANCE missions are just the early steps toward eventually getting a very small, fully autonomous robot on Europa to see if we can confirm those theories.

This is a NASA website that has even more information.


College Park, Md.: If this robot is completely submerged how will it be powered? Cable? Batteries? Additionally, if a similar robot is sent to Europa, how will it be powered since a solar array is unlikely to be able to keep a sophisticated machine operating as well as it would on Mars?

Ceci Connolly: My understanding is that the robot is battery powered. However, in early test dives, the team sent Clementine down on a tether. Sort of like using training wheels when you first learn to ride a bike!

This is the link to Stone Aerospace, the Texas company that built DEPTHX.


Anonymous: Is El Zacaton a singular entity, or is it part of a larger karst system in the Yukatan? If it is part of a larger system, how far into the system will Clementine explore?

Ceci Connolly: El Zacaton is part of a larger collection of sinkholes, or cenotes, north of Tampico. The group is called in Spanish Sistema Zacaton.

La Pilita, for example, is another cenote in the broader system.


Arlington, Va.: Do you see any differences in the way USA culture develops robots vs. Japan. Developments out of Japan always seem to center around robots as companions..robotic care givers etc. USA seems to develop robots for manufacturing or space exploration. Is this impression correct?


Ceci Connolly: Your observation seems accurate to me, though I'm not certain. If anyone out in cyberworld has other thoughts, please let us know.


Washington, D.C.: How has the success of Spirit and Opportunity affected NASA's use of robitics technology in space exploration? Also, are young people (high school or younger) participating in this project through NASA's partnership with FIRST Robotics?

Ceci Connolly: I'm sorry to say I don't know the answer to your question. But I want to post it in the hopes we might hear from someone who does!


Washington, D.C.: I assume other research teams are working on ways to get through the ice on Europa so the robot can 'swim' around. What technologies look most promising at this point to get the probe through kilometers of ice?

Ceci Connolly: Yes, they are.

Peter Doran at the University of Illinois will be heading up ENDURANCE -- the mission in Antarctica. When we spoke, he said he is looking at two important elements: a tool that would either melt or drill through the ice, and then some attachments to the robot that would drop down much deeper. Doran is hoping that Clementine will stay just below the surface of Lake Bonney and not go too deep. They don't want Clementine to disturb that underwater environment too much.


Washington, D.C.: When NASA undertakes a mission like this one, what happens to the scientific data that the robot brings back? Is the data released to the public entirely, or does the company (or companies) that created the robot own the data? Or, do government scientists hold the exclusive rights to it?

Ceci Connolly: I can't say with 100 percent certainty, but my impression is that NASA and the scientists share the information. I know that Marcus Gary, out of the University of Texas, is planning to publish scientific articles on DEPTHX so that everyone can learn from the mission.


Fairfax, Va.: How deep have the divers had to go to either rescue the robot or simply to observe its behavior. It seems pretty dangerous with Cenotes going down to 1000 feet and possibly more.

Ceci Connolly: Marcus Gary was the person who "rescued" Clementine when she got stuck in the La Pilita cenote. I believe he went down 50-80 meters.

As I understand it, the team will direct Clementine go go a bit deeper each day and monitor the robot's progress.

This link has some great photos from earlier dives.


Portland, Ore.: Last I heard, the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter (JIMO) mission had been canceled. So, what is the name of the program at NASA that built Clemente? Is the department of NASA that built the robot just hoping that funding for the rest of the mission (the orbiter that would carry Clemente, the launch vehicle, the operations expenses) will be restored? Or is Clemente operating under the aegis of a funded mission?

Ceci Connolly: I am not familiear with JIMO. I know that funding for some of these NASA projects has been cut back -- and for a while it was feared that the ENDURANCE mission would not be funded. But NASA says it has enough money right now to conduct the Antarctica project and then we'll see.


McLean, Va.: What area of technical development do you think is most difficult: power, processing, sensors, or something else? That is, where will people be putting most of their money and time on this project?

Ceci Connolly: It all seems incredibly challenging to me. I suppose the beauty of the DEPTHX project is that it has pulled together a very strong team from several disciplines. I think one big challenge for this team going forward will be to devise a robot that is much smaller than Clementine -- in other words, pack all this technology into a machine about the size of a vacuum cleaner, instead of a Volkswagen.


Bowie, Md.: I must say I am very excited to learn of this robot going to Europa. In my second year of college I took an Astronomy class and learned about Europa possibly having water and the having the most similar environment to the earths. Do you think if the findings confirm water or life that more probes will be sent? If this is success I know personally I would love to see even more research go into this moon.

Ceci Connolly: I can't speak for NASA, but if they found evidence of life on Europa I think that would be a very big deal and spur much more exploration. My sense is that a mission to Europa is perhaps 20 years off, which seems like forever to me, but really isn't that long in the research community.


Ceci Connolly: Before we conclude, I wanted to pass along a few more good links for anyone interested in this subject.


Anonymous: What's the time frame for the studies in Antarctica? I think the whole idea of studying lakes under ice there is fascinating, particularly because scientists have to be careful about not introducing contamination.

Ceci Connolly: I believe the ENDURANCE team hopes to do a test dive in Wisconsin in late 2008 and then two missions in Lake Bonney through 2009.


Chicago, Ill.: Is there any way that the public at large can follow the progress of the robot and the team without waiting for the media to update us?

Ceci Connolly: Some of the scientists are trying to put updates on the websites I've mentioned above in today's chat. However, they're pretty busy out there on site so I don't know if it's a guarantee.


Ceci Connolly: Wow, this hour flew by! Thanks to everyone for joining the chat -- and reading the story.


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