Remember the rovers, NASA’s Mars-trekking robots that have been roaming the red planet off and on since 2004? Well, here comes Grover, the space agency’s new unmanned, Earth-hugging vehicle, which is about to explore another remote, inhospitable place: Greenland’s ice sheet.
Tomorrow, NASA will begin testing Grover -- short for Greenland Rover, or short for Goddard Remotely Operated Vehicle for Exploration and Research, take your pick. The robot has until June 8 to prove itself on the island’s frigid and ever-changing snowscape. There's good reason to be concerned about this shifting terrain: last July, more of Greenland’s surface ice melted, and melted faster, than ever before recorded.
Climate Central’s Andrew Freedman reports:
Greenland is the world's largest island, and it holds 680,000 cubic miles of ice. If all of this ice were to melt -- which won't happen anytime soon -- the oceans would rise by more than 20 feet. Uncertainties about how the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica are responding to the warming climate have limited scientists’ confidence in projections of future sea level rise. Current estimates show that the global average sea level is likely to rise by up to 3 feet by 2100, which would cause significant flooding problems for coastal cities, particularly during severe storm events.
Like its older, worldlier cousins, Grover runs on solar panels and has an onboard computer. Unlike the six-wheeled, slower-than-molasses Mars rovers, Grover will cruise around on repurposed snowmobile tracks -- at a speedier 1.2 mph! The vehicle's ground-penetrating radar will relay signals from within the ice sheet, detailing what's happening down below within its many layers of ice and snow.
The glaciologists at the Goddard Space Flight Center and Boise State University who developed the new bot are understandably excited. Instead of spending hours snowmobiling or flying over the ice to collect data, the scientists will maneuver Grover by remote control, presumably while sipping cocoa in warm offices.
“It will go slower than we would with snowmobiles, but when it goes for 24 hours, which a human can’t, it’ll actually gather more data for us,” says glaciologist Lora Koenig in a video that details Grover’s history. It began as an idea sparked by students at a summer engineering program and grew to a 6-foot tall, 800-pound Arctic trailblazer. In June, Grover will get a new friend, Dartmouth University's "Cool Robot" (which is actually kind of square). If all goes well this summer, the snow-bots might soon start monitoring ice loss -- and freaking out penguins -- in Antarctica. Here's hoping nobody falls in. These guys can't swim.
Image: Gabriel Trisca, Boise State University