NASA has been exploring some really Lovecraftian labyrinths

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When you want to probe other planets below the surface to find fragments of their past (and possibly aliens), there’s just one thing you have to figure out first—how to probe your own.

Roboticists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are going just as far as you can get from Earth without actually leaving Earth in kind of the same way the expedition team in H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness ventured into an almost alien terrain of eerily bluish ice at Alaska’s Matanuska Glacier. Except these researchers haven’t encountered any Great Old Ones, nor are they looking for Shoggoths or any other sort of subterranean madness.

“The idea is to identify and map out these underwater channels," said JPL researcher John Leichty. "We want to know if they're correlated to surface features that we can identify using satellite or overhead images."

NASA’s mission is to study the icy underground labyrinths otherwise known as moulins, which come into being when water forms waterfalls after penetrating thousands of feet of ice. Water that gushes through a glacier has power over how the glacier moves. Being able to match the locations of moulins to features that are observable by satellite (such as openings in glaciers) could mean progress toward a future mission to frozen worlds like Saturnian moon Enceladus and Jovian moon Europa. Meaning, if a satellite floating around one of these moons sees a particular surface feature, it could mean something that goes much deeper.

Lowering a probe into a moulin.

"To get under the surface of Europa or [Saturn's moon] Enceladus, we need to find the quickest way in," said Leichty’s colleague Andy Klesh. "Can we map and navigate these subglacial lakes with robots? Are there accessible passageways hidden just beneath the surface? This first foray to Alaska tested the technology to begin answering these questions."

Klesh and Leichty have been exploring moulins using a robotic submersible and a DIY glacial probe whose structure was inspired by their experience with CubeSats, since these narrow and often treacherous glacier innards make it too perilous a mission for humans, and no one wants to end up like that unfortunate group of scientists in Lovecraft’s story.

"CubeSats rely on the miniaturization of electronics to explore low-cost platforms. That allows us to explore areas that would otherwise be too risky or costly to access," Klesh explained.

The probe and submersible did a deep dive into the freezing water, equipped with underwater cameras to explore secret passages. Along with laser scans, images from the cameras allowed the scientists to bring 3-D views of the creepy caves to life.

As above, so below? We can’t be sure yet, but having an idea of what we can’t see on Enceladus or Europa someday could bring the unknown to the surface.

(via NASA JPL)