NASA Phase II Project- Autonomous Melting Probe for Icy Planets Exploration
September 11, 2020
R&D staff at Advanced Cooling Technologies, Inc. are hard at work on the NASA Phase II project ‘Autonomous Melting Probe for Icy Planets Exploration’
NASA is interested in exploring the possibility of life on the ocean worlds of Europa, Ceres (Jupiter’s moons) and Enceladus (Saturn’s moon). This kind of mission requires a reliable and autonomous ice penetration probe that can melt through the ~30km of ice crust of these moons. ACT’s Research & Development group have taken on this task, noting some particular points of concentration around challenges such as surrounding temperature non-uniformity, possible obstacle encounter during melting and descent as well as temperature and pressure extremes experienced by the instrument.
ACT has already completed a Phase I NASA SBIR program on this topic, demonstrating an early concept:
This summer ACT received funding for the Phase II portion of the program. The Phase II funding will allow ACT to continue to work on an innovative melting probe design, and begin designing, building and testing prototypes. The final prototype needs to be capable of melting the thick icy crust efficiently. It needs to avoid obstacles by changing the direction of motion or even melting and moving laterally to avoid refreezing of the tail, all autonomously.
To enable these capabilities for the probe, the development during the Phase II program will focus on a series of innovative features. Feature one will be a pumped 2-phase loop that collects waste heat from the electrical convertors to focus it to the front of the probe. A second feature is a vapor chamber at the front that will collect the heat from the pumped 2-phase loop and focus the heat for forward melting. A third and very important feature, consisting of variable conductance walls, will allow lateral melting only as needed to minimize the parasitic energy usage. This feature will passively release the probe when it gets stuck because of tail refreeze. This will allow a change of trajectory or even lateral motion to avoid obstacles. A fourth feature will consist of water displacement nozzles that will allow steering of the probe during the ice melting. All these features will need to work together, interacting with each other, increasing the probes reliability and avoiding mission show stoppers. ACT’s team expects preliminary results from this Phase II development by September 2021 and final prototype results by June 2022.