Nathalie Cabrol featured in "Swimming Robot ... to Saturn Moon"

Swimming Robot Tested for Billion-Mile Trip to Saturn Moon

By Katie Worth, National Geographic

Where do you get a robot ready to visit a lake a billion miles away?

The glacier-fed Laguna Negra (map) in the Chilean Andes, where NASA and SETI Institute scientists have been testing a floating robot whose successors may eventually parachute into a sea on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.


It’s not filled with liquid methane, nor is it -297 degrees Fahrenheit (-182 degrees Celsius), but otherwise Laguna Negra does a passable impression of an alien sea. That’s because it’s surrounded by a barren environment with a thin atmosphere and is vulnerable to storms, avalanches, and possibly volcanoes.

Due to global warming, the glacial lake is also rapidly changing, ideal circumstances for a robot being taught to recognize shifts in a fluid environment.

Titan has the distinction of being the only other body in our solar system known to have stable liquid on its surface. That liquid is mostly made of the gases methane and ethane, but the fact that the moon has seas, lakes, rain, and glaciers make it closer to Earth than anything else in our solar system. (Related: “Saturn Moon Has Tropical ‘Great Salt Lake,’ Methane Marshes.”)

The lander’s science team, led by SETI astrobiologist Nathalie Cabrol, first launched the Planetary Lake Lander in Laguna Negra in 2011. The prototype robot has spent the last two years exploring its surroundings, determining the lake’s size and depth, measuring its pH, and observing all meteorological phenomena.

It’s not ready yet: The lander’s instruments are designed for a terrestrial environment, and the current version is far too heavy to be sent into space. But those evolutions will come, said Cabrol.

“Right now we’re at the same place we were 10 or 15 years ago, when we were starting to test Mars rovers in the desert,” she said.

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