Icefin. It kind of sounds like the name of a new James Bond film. And actually, it could be at home in one.
The robotic vehicle was deployed at the end of last year by a team of scientists and engineers from the Georgia Institute of Technology through about 65 feet of ice and 1,640 feet of water to the sea floor in Antarctica. The just-released video above provides a look at what the needle-like vessel saw when down there, including a surprising amount of life such as sponges, anemones and sea stars.
"We saw evidence of a complex community on the sea floor that has never been observed before, and unprecedented detail on the ice-ocean interface that hasn't been achieved before," Britney Schmidt said in a new report about the expedition from GT. Schmidt is an assistant professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech, and the principle investigator for the Icefin project.
Because Icefin is shaped like a long thin needle, the researchers were able to deploy it at McMurdo research station in Antarctica through a hole with a diameter of only 12 inches (about 30 centimeters).
Though it has a slender profile, Icefin is incredibly robust. It has a modular design, which means researchers can swap out different instruments based on their needs -- just like many spacecraft. That's fitting, as Icefin was deployed as part of the NASA-funded Sub Ice Marine and Planetary-analog Ecosystem (Simple) program, an effort to understand the way icy crusts interface with the water beneath them.
"What's unique about the vehicle is the combination of size and instrumentation," Schmidt told Crave. "Other under-ice vehicles the size of Icefin (which is less than 300 pounds) are generally only capable of operations under sea ice and depth and range of about 500 feet, and with low instrumentation -- meaning a camera and maybe one other instrument. Icefin can handle depths to 1.5 kilometers (just under a mile) and a range of 3-4 kilometers (about 1.8-2 miles), with the same or more instrumentation as vehicles like Autosub that weigh several tons."
For this mission, Icefin had eight instruments aboard, including a range of sensors and up/down imaging devices that were designed to work even in the numbing temperatures below the Ross Ice Shelf where it was deployed.
Icefin also made use of a navigation system called SLAM (simultaneous localization and mapping), which allowed it to triangulate its position "based on measuring the range and bearing of features on the seafloor or under the ice," says the GT statement.
"Because it is portable, we can get into environments further from the front of the ice shelves beyond the range of big vehicles and can even do lakes," Schmidt told us.
While Icefin is slated to explore the other side of the world -- the Arctic -- in 2016, the hope is that the technology that's gone into developing it will some day help scientists explore the ice-covered oceans on Jupiter's moon, Europa.
"We're advancing hypotheses that we need for Europa and understanding ocean systems here better," Schmidt said. "We're also developing and getting comfortable with technologies that make polar science -- and eventually Europa science -- more realistic."