NASA is launching a robot today that scientists hope will provide more data at a cheaper cost about the behavior of the Greenland ice sheet in a rapidly warming region.

The 6-foot-tall, 800-pound Goddard Remotely Operated Vehicle for Exploration and Research, or Greenland Rover or GROVER, resembles a moving house on wheels with its tilted solar panels. It is the first such unit from NASA, and one of the few attempts to assess ice sheet dynamics by radar on a robot in the Arctic, said Lora Koenig, a glaciologist at the Goddard Space Flight Center and science adviser on the project.

Currently, scientists rely mainly on snowmobiles and aircraft to assess Greenland's snow and ice layers with radar methods that are often expensive and time-consuming.

"Our really highest expectation is that [GROVER] will be able to gather this data without human interaction," said Koenig. "We won't have to have so much human time invested."

She said GROVER is expected to travel about 700 kilometers in its maiden test, which will run from today to June 8 at Summit Station, a high-elevation research site in Greenland. The rover can virtually work around the clock, as the sun doesn't fall below the horizon during the Arctic summer.

By contrast, a recent trip gathering similar data via snowmobile covered 150 kilometers over 12 days, a process that was "extremely tiring" and required setting up camp, Koenig said. If everything goes as planned, GROVER will be able to move about the ice sheet without much human interference, via a preprogrammed route.

The solar-powered rover will shoot radio wave pulses into the ice sheet to assess the characteristics of snow and ice layers about 20 meters below the surface, said Koenig. The layers resemble tree rings, providing a snapshot of the past. If everything goes well, the results will help determine how snow accumulation has changed over the past 20 years or so.

One measure of sea-level rise
Greenland is losing ice amid rising temperatures. At the same time, warming may cause more snow to accumulate in some spots, because of higher amounts of moisture in the air, said Koenig. "We need more data, to make firmer conclusions" about what is going on with the rate of snow accumulation.

By comparing annual accumulation to ice loss, researchers can estimate Greenland's contribution to rising sea levels. Many scientists believe sea levels will rise about 3 feet by 2100.

Last summer, Greenland's ice surface experienced a drastic thaw, with surface melting covering about 97 percent of the ice sheet at one point.

GROVER is just one puzzle piece, along with aircraft and other methods, to try and maximize dollars with research, according to Koenig. It follows on the trail of academic and military scientists who dispatched robots in Greenland two years ago (ClimateWire, Aug. 3, 2011).

The robot's genesis came from college-age students working at summer boot camps in 2010 and 2011 at the Goddard Space Flight Center. They reached out to Koenig for a practical application for their robotic designs. NASA collaborated with Boise State University on the radar piece.

The initial focus with GROVER will be to test its operating parts in frigid weather. Researchers will analyze, for example, how much they need to recharge batteries and put the robot into hibernation. Scientists plan to communicate with GROVER initially with Wi-Fi, and eventually switch to satellite. The agency's goal is for the unit to traverse the ice sheet in future years for several months at a time.

"In a few years from now, we would hope we could drive him hundreds of kilometers up and down the ice sheet," said Koenig.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500