NASA says its engineers have created a robot capable of traveling into a volcano and exploring the fissures tubes within to gain better understanding of how volcanoes erupt.
Researchers at the space agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., have created two wall-scaling robots they've dubbed VolcanoBots, using as a basis an existing robot known as the Durable Reconnaissance and Observation Platform, or DROP.
NASA postdoctoral fellow Carolyn Parcheta has worked with robotics researcher Aaron Parness of JPL to use VolcanoBot 1 to map a conduit system of Hawaii's Kilauea Volcano, creating 3D maps of an currently inactive fissure on the volcano's flanks.
"We don't know exactly how volcanoes erupt," says Parcheta, who admits to a life-long fascination with volcanoes. "We have models but they are all very, very simplified. This project aims to help make those models more realistic."
The two-wheeled VolcanoBot 1 is around a foot long and less than seven inches in height, and in May 2014 it ventured 82 feet below the surface at the Kilauea Volcano.
The researchers say they hope the robot, or its successors, will eventually travel much deeper and further.
In March they plan to send the smaller VolcanoBot 2 even deeper into the Hawaiian volcano.
Parness says having Parcheta involved in the robot project has provided a welcome geological take on the effort.
"Scientists and engineers working together on such a small team is pretty rare, but has generated lots of great ideas because our perspectives on the problems are so different," he says.
The researcher using the VolcanoBots on Earth could lead to robots capable of exploring dormant or even active volcanoes on other distant planets, the researchers say.
Fissures are the usual physical features out of which magma erupts on both Earth and Mars, they point out, and that could also be the case for volcanoes previously active on Europa, Mercury and the moon.
"In the last few years, NASA spacecraft have sent back incredible pictures of caves, fissures and what look like volcanic vents on Mars and the moon," says Parness.
"We don't have the technology yet to explore them, but they are so tantalizing!" he says.
Using studies of volcanoes on Earth could help bridge that technology gap, he adds, as well as providing immediate new knowledge.
"We're learning about how volcanoes erupt here on Earth, too, and that has a lot of benefits in its own right," he says.