A team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is creating and testing a snake-like robot called EELS (Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor). Inspired by a desire to descend vents on Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus and enter the subsurface ocean, this versatile robot is being developed to autonomously map, traverse, and explore previously inaccessible destinations on Earth, the Moon, and other worlds in our solar system.
The robot has been put to the test in sandy, snowy, and icy environments, including the Mars-like terrain at JPL’s Mars Yard, a “robot playground” created at a ski resort in the snowy mountains of Southern California, and even an indoor ice rink.
Because of the long communications lag time between Earth and deep space, EELS is designed to autonomously sense its environment, calculate risk, travel, and gather data with yet-to-be-determined science instruments. When something goes wrong, the goal is for the robot to recover on its own, without human assistance.
The project team began building the first prototype in 2019, and has been making continual revisions. They’ve been trying out white, 3D-printed plastic screws for testing on looser terrain like sand and soft snow, as well as sharper, black metal screws for ice. In its current form, the EELS 1.0 robot weighs about 220 pounds (100 kilograms) and is 13 feet (4 meters) long.