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NASA VolcanoBot goes where no human dares to tread

NASA's VolcanoBot is a brave little machine on wheels that doesn't mind diving into fissures and lava tubes for science.

VolcanoBot 1
VolcanoBot 1 explores a lava tube. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Volcanoes are fascinating beasts. Known for belching fire and molten rock, they aren't always the friendliest places to be, especially when it comes to scientists seeking to learn more about their nooks and crannies. NASA researchers have developed a couple of different VolcanoBots, little rolling robots that don't mind rolling into a volcanic fissure where humans can't go.

"We don't know exactly how volcanoes erupt. We have models, but they are all very, very simplified. This project aims to help make those models more realistic," says Carolyn Parcheta, a postdoctoral fellow at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

VolcanoBot 1 has already been busy exploring an inactive fissure created by the active Kilauea volcano in Hawaii. The robot's goal was to 3D-map the magma pathways inside. Its successor, the smaller and more advanced VolcanoBot 2, is scheduled to tackle the same volcano in March of this year. Researchers hope to send the second bot even deeper, since VolcanoBot 1 didn't reach the bottom of the fissure.

"In order to eventually understand how to predict eruptions and conduct hazard assessments, we need to understand how the magma is coming out of the ground," Parcheta says. "This is the first time we have been able to measure it directly, from the inside, to centimeter-scale accuracy."

So why is NASA concerning itself with robots exploring terrestrial volcanoes? The work could eventually expand to cover the creation of specialized robots designed to explore fissures on Mars, Jupiter's moon Europa or our own personal moon. Fissures are common landscape features on many extraterrestrial bodies and scientists are extremely curious about what secrets they might hold, hidden under the surface. Exploring those volcanic mysteries starts right here on Earth.

The smaller VolcanoBot 2 next to its predecessor. NASA/JPL-Caltech