NASA is sending a rover to a remote frontier on harsh terrain that's unfriendly to humans. But it won't be to the moon or Mars -- it's headed for Greenland.
From May 3 to June 8, the Goddard Remotely Operated Vehicle for Exploration and Research will travel to the highest part of the ice-locked landmass to examine the record of changes contained in the ice sheet’s frigid layers.
The 6-foot-tall GROVER weighs in at 800 pounds and rolls around on modified snowmobile tracks at an average speed of 1.2 miles per hour. Because it's powered by solar panels, it doesn't pollute the air -- and because the summer sun doesn't fall beneath the horizon, the rover can operate day and night.
Human explorers often search such extreme environments in person, said Lora Koenig, a Goddard glaciologist GROVER science adviser, who has crossed "hundreds of kilometers" of western Antarctica doing similar research. But unlike humans, robots don’t need to take a break on the ice.
"We have to make camps, take time out to eat, make water -- and all the living on the ice sheet takes a lot of time," Koenig said in an interview shortly before boarding a plane to Greenland. "The robot, even though it'll go slower, should be able to gather more data because it can operate 24 hours a day."
Research with a rover is less expensive than most other methods, including human exploration and aircraft surveys.
The rover will send radar waves through the ice, which will bounce off buried features and give the scientists a picture of the story contained in its layers of compacted snow. For scientists studying climate change, this is crucial data: Greenland began making the news last summer when scientists realized that higher temperatures were causing melting across 97% of the ice sheet.
GROVER was designed by teams of students in 2010 and 2011 at an engineering boot camp at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
One of the graduate students, Gabriel Trisca, said that GROVER could be a useful platform for all kinds of science instruments, not just radar.
"It would be just a matter of getting one instrument and plugging it in," Trisca said as he and fellow Boise State University graduate student Mark Robertson headed to the airport. "I hope there are other projects that can benefit from an autonomous vehicle like this, that can be controlled via satellite from anywhere in the world."
Follow me on Twitter @aminawrite.