NewsMay 1, 2013

Meet GROVER: NASA's New Ice-Loving, Roving Robot

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Andrew Freedman

By Andrew Freedman

First, there was the Mars Rover, made famous by its spectacular landing on the Red Planet on August 6, 2012. Now, climate science has its own robot, only this one is designed to probe the surface of Greenland. 

Starting Friday, NASA plans to test the remote control robot, nicknamed GROVER, to study the layers of snow and ice that comprise the massive Greenland ice sheet. The robot, whose name stands for both the Greenland Rover and Goddard Remotely Operated Vehicle for Exploration and Research, carries a ground-penetrating radar that will be used to study how snow is accumulating on the Greenland ice pack, providing insight into the ice sheet's mass balance.

A prototype of GROVER, minus its solar panels, was tested in January 2012 at a ski resort in Idaho. The laptop in the picture is for testing purposes only and is not mounted on the final prototype.
Credit: Gabriel Trisca, Boise State University.

The Greenland ice sheet has been losing ice at an increasing rate in recent years, thereby contributing to sea level rise. 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.

Last year saw a rare melt event in Greenland when 97 percent of the Greenland ice sheet — including the normally frigid high-elevation areas — experienced some degree of melting. 

As was first reported by Climate Central, the reflectivity of the ice sheet reached an all-time low in a period of record that dates back to 2000. Unusually low reflectivity is an indication that the ice was absorbing more solar radiation than it typically does, and was more prone to melting.

GROVER was developed during 2010 and 2011 by engineering students working at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., as part of summer engineering boot camps, and it was built in conjunction with Boise State University.

The GROVER prototype is 6 feet tall, including the solar panels that it taps for power, and it weighs a hefty 800 pounds. It uses two repurposed snowmobile tracks to travel along the ice.

The robot's downward-looking radar sends radio wave pulses into the ice sheet, and those waves are reflected back off buried features, which gives researchers a better idea about the snow and ice layers lying beneath the surface.

The GROVER will initially be operated by scientists at the National Science Foundation’s Summit Camp, where the ice sheet is about 2-miles thick, according to a NASA press release. The robot will be capable of operating at all hours during the 24-hour sunlight that characterizes the Arctic summer, which means that, theoretically, it can work longer hours than the scientists in the field. The scientific rover can be operated for less money than the current methods of studying the Greenland ice sheet, which rely more on satellite and aircraft measurements, along with field studies by scientists. However, the rover can only augment those tools at this time.

Researchers plan on recovering most of the data from the robot at the end of the season, but they plan to tap into satellite communication networks to operate it from far-away locations, beaming back near-real-time data, sometime in the future. This could allow researchers at their desks in the U.S. to control the robot operating in Greenland, which could be a first for Greenland ice research.

“We think it’s really powerful,” said Gabriel Trisca, a Boise State graduate student who developed the robot’s software, in the press release. “The fact is the robot could be anywhere in the world and we’ll be able to control it from anywhere.”

NASA likens GROVER to a spacecraft. Like the Mars Rover, for example, it too must operate in a harsh environment, largely autonomously for long periods of time.

Unlike the Mars Rover though, this one has a name that is sure to resonate with fans of Sesame Street.

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