The autonomous underwater robot known as DepthX has completed its exploration of one of the world's deepest sinkholes, Mexico's Sistema Zacatón. Diving almost 1,100 feet into this massive, water-filled network of caves, DepthX penetrated far deeper than human divers have ever reached. It brought back samples of water and slime coating the cave walls.
Initially DepthX descended on a cable tether, which relayed commands and data back to human handlers on the surface. But in dives conducted in late May, the robot swam off-leash for up to eight hours at a time. As it explored the cave, DepthX automatically updated three-dimensional digital maps of its surroundings.
DepthX (short for Deep Phreatic Thermal Explorer) was built to test sensors, thrusters and other equipment that may eventually be deployed to explore Jupiter's moon Europa, where scientists hope to find an ocean hidden beneath a sheet of ice. In preparation for such a mission, NASA researchers plan to test DepthX in Antarctica's chilly Lake Bonney in late 2008.
Scientists hope that DepthX, or a robot modeled after it, will be able to retrieve biological samples that will answer the question of whether life exists on other worlds. Here on Earth, such robots might be used to discover new types of microbial life that hold the key to novel medical therapies or biotechnologies.
DepthX is the brainchild of inventor and cave diver Bill Stone, profiled in PopSci's February issue. The project is funded by NASA's Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets program.