The Robot Versus the Volcano

The adorable little rover that will probe deep into volcanoes on Earth—and beyond it.

Jan 11 2015, 8:46pm

Few natural events are more awe-inspiring than a volcanic eruption. These massive blowouts of lava, ash, and gases have destroyed civilizations, and permanently altered our planet's geology and atmosphere. But despite the prominent role volcanoes have played in shaping Earth—and many other worlds—very little is known about their internal dynamics.

Not surprisingly, real volcanoes are a lot more complicated and treacherous than kindergarten science projects involving vinegar and baking soda led us to believe. Indeed, one of the biggest limiting factors for volcanologists is the inherent challenge of getting a good look inside these geological hotspots without, you know, having their faces melt off like that guy at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Enter: VolcanoBot. Designed by Carolyn Parcheta and Aaron Parness of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, this adorable rover is designed to probe volcanic fissures. Back in May 2014, the first prototype of the bot was able to descend 85 feet into Hawaii's Kilauea volcano, filming and mapping as it plugged along. Now, Parcheta plans to take a new and improved version of the bot even deeper into the inferno. VolcanoBot2 will make its maiden voyage into Kilauea this March.

Size comparison of VolcanoBot1 (right) and VolcanoBot2 (left). Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

"VolcanoBot2 has a smaller size, stronger wheels, and the ability rotate the visualization sensors," Patcheta told me. "This means it has better mobility and better viewing angles than VolcanoBot1, allowing us to see and document more of the fissure. The smaller size means we can take this version into smaller places that VolcanoBot1 couldn't reach, extending the area over which we can get data on the fissure's shape."

The deeper the rover can venture, the more complete the 3D map of Kilauea interior world will be, which in turn could help address several outstanding mysteries about volcanic behavior. The main goal is to investigate the geometries of magma conduits—a better understanding of these pathways is useful both for pure research and for monitoring eruptions. By giving the researchers a vicarious window into these fissures, VolcanoBot can help determine their role in eruptions and their structure at various depths.

Parcheta lowering VolcanoBot1 into an inactive vent in May 2014. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

"The short and honest answer is that we don't know what is down there," said Parcheta, when asked about what the team expects to find in Kilauea's depths. That's why continued improvements to subsequent VolcanoBots are already in the works. Though VolcanoBot2 will be able to cover a lot more ground than the previous iteration, Parcheta and Parness plan to make future versions ever more heat-resistant, so they can handle the extreme environments of active volcano vents.

But perhaps most tantalizingly, Parcheta hopes to see VolcanoBot evolve into an interplanetary explorer. After all, Earth isn't the only world to host volcanic activity. The Jovian moon Io, for example, is the most geologically active body in the solar system, with about 400 volcanoes sprinkled across its pockmarked surface. Mars's Olympus Mons is the solar system's largest volcano, and ice-spewing cryovolcanoes dot the frigid worlds of Europa and Saturn's moon Titan.

Jupiter's volcano-heavy moon Io. Image: NASA.

"The range of extraterrestrial exploration options is very enticing," said Parcheta. "At the moment, we need to improve VolcanoBot to a level that it could get certified for space flight, and it will eventually have to be made of all metal. This process will likely take several years and interest from potential missions to help it get space ready. But if that does happen, then there is a good chance we could compete for a spot on an exploration or science mission."

When I asked her if she had a particular destination in mind, she understandably answered, "Hard to say. All of them?!" It is kind of an impossible question, given the multitudes of worlds that are just begging for a VolcanoBot mission. "Each provides its own unique challenges," Parcheta said, "and I suspect the Moon, Mars, or Mercury would be the easiest first step beyond Earth. There are definitely fissures on Mars, and the sinuous rills on the Moon, so I would probably start there, but if a mission to Europa, Io, or Enceladus wanted to add VolcanoBot, I'd be thrilled to explore those areas too."

Sending a robot deep into the freezing cracks of Europa or the fissures of Mars would be mind-boggling, and it's an exciting prospect to look forward to in the coming decades. But, lest we forget, Earth's volcanoes are no small shakes either. No doubt there will be spacefaring descendents in time, but for now, the VolcanoBot series has plenty of exploring to do here at home.