If alien life exists in our Solar System, NASA is hoping one of its latest projects will be the one to find definitive proof. The space agency recently revealed a robotic program called EELS (Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor) in hopes of using it on one of Saturn’s moons to look for alien life. EELS takes its name from its snake-like shape, and NASA is already praising the self-propelled, “highly adaptable robot.”
“It has the capability to go to locations where other robots can’t go. Though some robots are better at one particular type of terrain or other, the idea for EELS is the ability to do it all,” EELS project manager Matthew Robinson said in a new NASA blog post. “When you’re going places where you don’t know what you’ll find, you want to send a versatile, risk-aware robot that’s prepared for uncertainty – and can make decisions on its own.”
The first EELS prototype was built in 2019 and has been going through testing and development since. While the current EELS iteration still isn’t in launching form, researchers still hope they’re on the right track by crafting an autonomous robot that can go places the agency’s other crafts have yet to explore.
“We have a different philosophy of robot development than traditional spacecraft, with many quick cycles of testing and correcting,” EELS principal investigator Hiro Ono added. “There are dozens of textbooks about how to design a four-wheel vehicle, but there is no textbook about how to design an autonomous snake robot to boldly go where no robot has gone before. We have to write our own. That’s what we’re doing now.”
Using stereo cameras, EELS is able to create a 3D map of its surroundings to run through a navigation algorithm that helps it make the best decisions on where to travel and how. As seen in the video above, the EELS team has already been running the latest robot through a series of tests, including piloting the “snake” over ice rinks to simulate the glaciers it may face on the furthest-reaching planets and moons.
It’s unclear when EELS would be ready (if ever) of reaching the furthest distances of our solar system.
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