Icefin Deep-Sea Vehicle Has an Eye on Outer Space

An undersea craft practices in the Antarctic for a mission to one of Jupiter’s moons

Innovators: Britney Schmidt and Mick West (above, right)
Ages: 33 and 48
Physics professor at Georgia Tech, senior research engineer at Georgia Tech Research Institute

Form and function
Icefin, a seafaring robotic vehicle, uses specialized materials and modular parts to collect data and video from the floor beneath Antarctica’s largest ice shelf, a proxy for the geography of Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons.

Origin
Schmidt, West, and 52 students began work last year on their deep-sea vehicle. West runs the field tests.

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Design
Surrounding an aluminum core, a layer of yellow fiberglass-reinforced foam insulates the craft while keeping it buoyant. A built-in camera transmits video back to the operators. Internal tools measure temperature, depth, water flow, and salinity.

Funding
Georgia Tech covered the cost of materials, equipment, and staffing. NASA paid for travel to Antarctica. Neither would say how much it invested

Battery Life
Fifteen lithium ion batteries power five motorized thrusters that help Icefin travel underwater for four to six hours on a full charge.

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Testing
The 10-inch-by-10-foot, 230-pound craft is designed to fit through holes in Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf. Icefin can travel 1,500 meters below the surface, compared with a few hundred meters for comparable craft.

Next Steps
Schmidt’s team is trying to shrink Icefin’s design so it’s slim enough to one day fit on a cramped rocket bound for Europa. The distant moon, covered by icy oceans, may be “the most habitable place in the solar system beyond earth,” says NASA program scientist Curt Niebur. The space agency requested $30 million in its latest budget to plan a Europa mission. For now, the Icefin team needs $40,000 to meet its goal of deploying in the Arctic by next summer.

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