All posts by Michelle Babcock

Pingo Parade: The Last Observations of the Dawn mission to Ceres

Tantalizing evidence shows the dwarf planet bears striking similarities with Earth and Mars

Members of the Planetary Habitability & Technology lab at Georgia Tech are the authors of one of several new and exciting papers about dwarf planet Ceres. The paper is one of seven based on data from NASA’s Dawn mission, and suggests that Ceres has pingo-like formations that share characteristics with those on Earth and Mars.

Pingos are dome-shaped hills, which on Earth form in areas where the ground remains partially frozen year-round. Similar to how a bottle of soda in the freezer will push off its cap and expand up out of the bottle as it freezes, when groundwater freezes, that pressure can push up a layer of the ground to form a dome-shaped hill called a pingo. These pingos can continue to grow for hundreds or thousands of years — as long as water continues to flow to the near-surface, that water will freeze and the pingo will grow.

a) Oblique view of the ~50 m tall Ibyuk Pingo, Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada (image credit - CBC). (b) Plan view look at Ibyuk Pingo (image credit - Google Earth). (c) Pingo candidate on Mars (image credit NASA/JPL/UA/MRO/HiRISE). (d) Two pingo candidates on Ceres (image citation NASA/JPL/Dawn)
a) Oblique view of the ~50 m tall Ibyuk Pingo, Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada (image credit – CBC). (b) A look at Ibyuk Pingo as seen from directly above (image credit – Google Earth). (c) Pingo candidate on Mars (image credit NASA/JPL/UA/MRO/HiRISE). (d) Two pingo candidates on Ceres (image citation NASA/JPL/Dawn)

“For years I’ve been strangely obsessed with Pingos. My advisor in grad school assigned us a paper on them and I’ve been thinking about them ever since. When it came time to propose ideas for Dawn to investigate, both Hanna and I proposed that we should search for pingo-like features on Ceres. There were hints in the early data, but it took the resolution of the XM2 (Second extended mission) phase of the mission to finally have enough resolution to really make a strong case that this kind of feature can form on Ceres,” said Georgia Institute of Technology associate professor Britney Schmidt, one of the paper’s authors.

The paper, published in Nature Geoscience, points to parallels in the pingo-like hills on Ceres and pingos on Earth, making a strong case for there being similar geologic processes causing both. Data the team analyzed from the Dawn mission suggests the Ceres hills are rich in water, with similar size and distribution to Earth’s pingos.

“The combination of morphology (shape), distribution, clustering behavior, association with water-rich materials, and young apparent age, in our analysis, made an extremely compelling case for these features to be ice-cored hills like pingos on Earth,” said Kynan Hughson, one of the paper’s authors and a postdoctoral fellow working with Schmidt. Hughson and Schmidt along with Hanna Sizemore of the Planetary Science Institute were the lead investigators for the study. “We also found that they cluster and organize in ways similar to terrestrial pingos.”

Comparison of a possible pingo candidate on Ceres (a: image credit NASA/JPL/Dawn) with Ibyuk Pingo (b: image credit ESA). While the cerean mound is nearly twice as large in every dimension, their forms are similar (c). Profiles were derived from Dawn stereo pairs and the ArcticDEM (Porter et al., 2018)
Comparison of a possible pingo candidate on Ceres (a: image credit NASA/JPL/Dawn) with Ibyuk Pingo (b: image credit ESA). While the cerean mound is nearly twice as large in every dimension, their forms are similar (c). Profiles were derived from Dawn stereo pairs and the ArcticDEM (Porter et al., 2018)

A possible pingo candidate on Ceres in perspective.
Perspective views of two pingo candidates in Occator crater, shown as Figure 4 in the new paper in Nature geoscience by Schmidt et al. Credit: Kynan Hughson/Georgia Tech/NASA/MPS/DLR

Ceres is the 25th largest body in our solar system. The dwarf planet is also the largest asteroid (roughly as wide as the state of Texas), located in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, even larger than Saturn’s famous moon Enceladus. The Dawn spacecraft circled Ceres from 2015-2018, and was able to collect data from just 35 km above the surface in its final phase before running out of fuel. Its focus in the XM2 mission was Occator crater — a 20-million-year-old impact crater with interesting characteristics.

Occator contains the brightest cluster of spots observed on Ceres, with a bright dome in the center. Early in the mission these bright spots in Occator were speculated to be deposits from brines — water with a high concentration of salts —XM2 confirmed this, and revealed ways that these brines come from below the surface of the dwarf planet.

In their Nature Geoscience publication, Schmidt, Hughson, Georgia Tech undergraduates Kayla Duarte, Vivian Romero and Kathrine Udell, and Dawn mission colleagues wrote about how the hills in Occator crater may have formed from refreezing of subsurface flowing water, produced by melting by the impact that formed the crater. Their work suggests that the effects that happen when groundwater refreezes, dubbed “cryo-hydrologic processes” in the paper, were active on Ceres in the recent geologic past, similar to how pingos form on Earth and potentially even Mars.

Topographic perspective views of the the central dome Ceralia Facula in Ceres’ Occator crater, from figure 1a of Schmidt et al 2020. Ceralia Facula and other hills and mounds on Ceres are reminiscent of pingos on Earth. Credit: Kynan Hughson/Georgia Tech/NASA/MPS/DLR
Topographic perspective views of the the central dome Ceralia Facula in Ceres’ Occator crater, from figure 1a of Schmidt et al 2020. Ceralia Facula and other hills and mounds on Ceres are reminiscent of pingos on Earth. Credit: Kynan Hughson/Georgia Tech/NASA/MPS/DLR

“On Earth, seasonal cycles in permafrost affect the growth and survival of pingos. In fact, the warming conditions we’re seeing right now in the Arctic due to climate change have caused pingos to collapse and even explode”, Schmidt said. “There aren’t any cycles like this on Ceres, but we know the floor of Occator was full of liquid water and brines from the impact, which would have frozen at the surface but allowed the subsurface liquid to remain for many, many years. In that case, any differences in pressure or porosity in the ground would allow these cryo-hydrologic processes to mimic how pingos form on Earth.”

Ceres is a C-type asteroid, which are among the oldest and darkest asteroids in our solar system. This type of asteroid rained down on the early Earth, bringing with them water and other important ingredients for life, Schmidt explained. In the series of 7 papers coming out in the Nature family of journals celebrating Dawn’s XM2 mission, Schmidt, Hughson, and other contributors show that these water-rich small bodies like Ceres still exist in the inner solar system. Schmidt is a co-author on the two Nature Communications papers led by Paul Schenk of LPI in Houston and JPL’s Jennifer Scully, on which the undergraduate team lead by Duarte are also co-authors. Hughson and Schmidt are both co-authors on the paper reporting ice deep in Ceres’ crust led by Ryan Park of JPL.

In the future, NASA hopes to use probes to explore the surfaces of icy planets and asteroids like Ceres, Europa, and others, and Schmidt and Hughson both hope for a return to Ceres in the near future.

“Sampling and analyzing the rock and ice on the surface of Ceres, as well as confirming the icy nature of these mounds in the future, will help inform us of Ceres’ past and present habitability. This will also inform us of rock weathering processes that take place within the interiors of icy moons like Europa and Enceladus, and shed light on the origin of Earth’s water,” Hughson said.

Pingos in the Arctic, water on Mars, climate change, and astronauts

In addition to identifying pingo-like formations on Ceres, Schmidt and Hughson are working to understand Earth’s pingos even better, which will improve our understanding and study of similar formations elsewhere in our solar system like Mars and Ceres.

“Like on other planetary bodies, cryo-hydrologic processes are altering the landscape here on Earth as well, dropping an incredible opportunity into our lap. With PingoSTARR, we’re going to head north and survey pingos with our best geophysical tools, so that we can start to put numbers on the formation and collapse processes govern the ‘lifecycle’ of pingos. With any luck, we’ll come back with a better understanding of ground ice processes that govern change on not just the Arctic coastline, but also beneath ice sheets and across other planetary bodies,” said Matthew Siegfried, another of Pingo STARR’s primary investigators.

The Planetary Habitability & Technology team just received a $2 million grant called Pingo STARR: Pingo SubTerranean Aquifer Reconnaissance & Reconstruction from NASA to bring together the best techniques to explore pingos on Earth as a steppingstone for looking for water on Mars and Ceres that could one day be used by astronauts. While they’re at it, they’ll also be helping understand the effects of climate change.

“Full 3D characterization of pingos and their surrounding/underlying hydrology has not been done. Filling in this knowledge gap not only teaches us more about these Arctic oddities and processes that govern them on Earth, but allows us to construct more detailed and testable hypotheses about how pingo analogs might form in the solar system,” Hughson said.

Mackenzie Delta, Pingo, Tuktoyaktuk. Detail of pingo in the Mackenzie Delta with massive injection ice. Photo: Lorenz King, JLU Giessen.de, August 8, 1987
Detail of pingo in the Mackenzie Delta with massive injection ice. Photo: Lorenz King, JLU Giessen.de, August 8, 1987

Their team, along with colleagues from the Colorado School of Mines and the Planetary Science Institute, are looking forward to extensive research in the arctic in order to “detect, characterize, understand, and eventually utilize groundwater and ground ice deposits on worlds such as Mars and Ceres,” Hughson said.

Another important reason for studying pingos on Earth is that these hills can be “important recorders of climate history.” Over the next four years, the team will use a combination of geophysical techniques—things like radar and electrical conductivity that can be used to map subsurface water and ice—to explore pingos on the north slope of Alaska and Canada’s pingo-dotted Tuktoyaktuk peninsula where some of the world’s largest and most densely clustered pingos are found.  These are some of the best analogs for pingos-like features on other planets, but are also indicators of what’s happening on Earth due to climate change.

“Their size and texture tell us about recent changes in the Arctic,” Hughson said. “By observing and characterizing their ice structure using geophysical methods over several years we will be able to identify rapid changes in ice saturated permafrost.”

“There have been a lot of papers trying to understand whether features on other planets really are pingos, and if so, what that says about the subsurface conditions on these planets. With the Pingo STARR project, we’ll help uncover the plumbing of these features and better understand what they say about how water, ice, and time affect the surfaces of planets, including our own,” Schmidt said.

5 reasons Icefin should be your new favorite robot

Icefin is an underwater oceanographer robot with projects funded by the likes of NASA and the National Science Foundation, and helps scientists explore ice-covered oceans. Icefin may be the inspiration for future trips to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, which is a key target on NASA’s list for ocean world exploration that could potentially harbor life.

Right now, Icefin vehicles are being used to study things like glaciers and ice streams in Antarctica. Whether mapping the underside of glaciers on Earth, or paving the way for ocean exploration on other worlds, Icefin is doing some seriously ground-breaking (or should we say, ice-breaking) work!

A computer rendition of the yellow bodied Icefin Robot

Here’s why Icefin should be your new favorite robot:

  1. Icefin has gone where no robot (or person) had gone before. “This is one small step for Icefin robot, one giant leap for robotkind”. During the 2019-2020 field season in Antarctica, Icefin was the first robot to deploy through a borehole drilled through a half mile of glacial ice, into the cold ocean beneath, and travel miles beneath the ice to map, measure, and study the underside of the critical Thwaites Glacier. Another Icefin vehicle, during the same season but in a different location, entered the ocean below the ice of Kamb Ice Stream, part of the Ross Ice Shelf, and explored that environment like never before. By going to places we had never been on Earth, Icefin robot will help lead us to places we’ve only dreamed of.
  1. Icefin will help scientists who study climate change, oceans, and glaciers, to more accurately predict our future. You care about climate change. That’s one of the reasons why we hope you’ll care about Icefin like we do. The robot oceanographer is helping scientists get a more detailed understanding of glaciers (like Thwaites, also known as the Doomsday Glacier because of its size and potential impact if/when it collapses). By collecting first-of-its-kind data and images of the underside of glaciers, both stable and eroding ones, we can paint a clearer picture of how and why they change, how fast it’s happening, and what impact we might see as these glaciers change.
  1. Icefin has some killer media. You know you love those aesthetic photo posts, whether it’s gorgeous vacation #goals on Facebook, or that astronomy pic of the day Instagram feed. Icefin will add an underwater, otherworldly, cool (see what we did there) aesthetic to your social feed. Want to see content like this, or this, or this, or this? You know what to do, follow Icefin (on social media) to where no robot oceanographer has gone before!
An image of Icefin, your new facorite robot, under a sheet of blue and green ice in water that appears light and deep blue. Icefin is a yellow, pencil-shaped robot.

More @icefinrobot on Instagram

Boop! A GIF image of a seal touhcing its nose to equipment after poking its head up from a borehole in the ice in Antarctice.

Via @icefinrobot on Twitter

Scott tent camp at Grounding Zone camp, Thwaites Glacier.

Via our blog Life Under the Ice

  1. Icefin is laying the groundwork with exploration on Earth, so future robots can explore other worlds. Speaking of “where no robot has gone before”, by exploring icy oceans in Antarctica, Icefin is paving the way for future robotic missions to other worlds with ice-covered oceans in our solar system, like Jupiter’s moon Europa. The moon is believed to have a vast liquid ocean covered in a layer of ice, which could harbor life, and robots like Icefin (and next generation vehicles) will be the ones to explore those alien landscapes, which may in fact look a lot like our own polar waters.
  1. Icefin is backed by a team of awesome people. We like to work hard and do science, engineering, and programming… and we like to have fun. We’re down-to-Earth people (unfortunately not down-to-Europa, yet!), and we promise you won’t regret making Icefin your favorite robot. Want to learn more? Check out this awesome short film NOVA Science made about us!

And there you have it! Now that Icefin is your new favorite robot, go follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and our blog, and check us out online

We can’t Th(wait)es to answer your FAQ about Thwaites and Icefin!

Thwaites FAQ: On May 21, 2020, PI and Icefin Lead Scientist Dr. Britney Schmidt participated in a Twitter Q&A session with Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and answered some of your most frequently asked questions about Thwaites and Icefin as part of the #ThwaitesGlacierChat. If you’re new to Thwaites and/or Icefin, this is a great place to start! If you’ve been following us for a while, here’s your chance for a more in-depth understanding of what we do, and why it matters.

Bulletin Atomic: The International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration is a 5-year project involving a huge number of scientists, ships, and aircraft to study the Antarctic. Why is this research important? What are you hoping to find?

Dr. Schmidt: Thwaites Glacier is one of the fastest changing glaciers in Antarctica. We want to understand how that works, and how quickly climate change is affecting the glacier. One of the ways to do this is to make measurements up close and personal with the processes affecting the ice, like melting from the warming ocean. 

Bulletin Atomic: What is the difference between sea ice and the ice on land? Do they each contribute to sea-level rise?

Dr. Schmidt: Ice on land (glaciers) is formed from compacting snow, but sea ice forms from ocean freezing. Glaciers like Thwaites enter the ocean below sea level. What this means is that glaciers can be easily affected (melting) by the ocean, and when they speed up, they add ice and water to the ocean, changing sea level. So the melting of sea ice can cause more glacier melting, through warming of the ocean, which means sea level rise. While sea ice doesn’t change sea level, as it melts, the bright ice that reflects sunlight is replaced by dark ocean that absorbs heat, which accelerates ocean warming.

Bulletin Atomic: MELT Project is part of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration. What is that project and how does it fit into the overall effort to understand the Thwaites Glacier?

Dr. Schmidt: With MELT, we’re getting up close and personal with the place where sea level rise starts for glaciers like Thwaites — the grounding zone. Icefin used a hot water drilled hole, [drilled] by British Antarctic Survey team Hot Water On Ice, to get under the 600m of ice and swim 2km back to where the glacier starts to float on the ocean (the grounding zone).

Bulletin Atomic: Is the Antarctic melting? All of it? And how do we know?

Dr. Schmidt: Quite a lot of melt is happening. We got to see it happening every time we went under the ice at Thwaites Glacier, a lot of which you can see in this video from Icefin here. Here’s our favorite image Icefin took of the grounding zone from under Thwaites, but there are lots more here

An Image Icefin took of the grounding zone from under Thwaites.

Bulletin Atomic: We’re tweeting an image from Peter Davis’ trip of the first borehole that was drilled. What are we looking at, and what does it tell your team? (Image credit: Screenshot of borehole trip video from Peter Davis, available here, as seen below)

Screenshot of borehole trip video from Peter Davis.

Dr. Schmidt: Icefin went down this 600m hole 5 times, drove about 15km total, and mapped the base of the ice, tasted the water, and measured melting — plus we found some cool organisms! When we got this video back from the Hot Water On Ice team, we knew it was safe to put Icefin and the other science instruments through the hole to start science.

Bulletin Atomic: Are there instruments left in place at Thwaites Glacier? Are you getting real-time readouts or does someone have to go back to collect the instruments and data?

Dr. Schmidt: Lots of the teams have left instruments to measure change and monitor conditions on Thwaites Glacier over the next few years. MELT has GPS stations and tilt meters and ApRes that Hot Water On Ice and glaciologist Kiya Riverman and others will be working with, and a team will go back out to retrieve the instruments. The Icefin team is back remote-sciencing at the Georgia Tech College of Sciences and Georgia Tech School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, working on all the data from last year. Looking forward to getting papers out soon!

Bulletin Atomic: What will the melting of Thwaites Glacier and other parts of the Antarctic mean for sea level rise? How long will it take, and how high will it go

Dr. Schmidt: Thwaites Glacier is in a precarious position, like the Atlas of West Antarctica, holding back a deep basin of ice that supports the whole ice sheet. If Thwaites Glacier goes, there will be much faster loss of ice and sea level rise. We don’t know exactly how fast Thwaites Glacier is responding to climate change, which is why the National Science Foundation and Natural Environment Research Council put together the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, because we have to find out.

Bulletin Atomic: What stands out about working in such a remote area? As the technology improves, how will it help future researchers study the glacier?

Dr. Schmidt: Working on Thwaites Glacier was incredibly humbling and exciting. Antarctica is one of the few places that just knocks you back off your feet when you see it. Technology is definitely improving, helping us see new things, but the people doing the work mean even more.  Science is a human endeavor, and a moral imperative. But sometimes you do get to drive robots under the ice, which is pretty cool.

From our perspective, using technology that NASA funded us to build to one day get to Europa, has helped us see our own planet in new ways. Icefin lets us see, “taste”, and “touch” the processes as they happen, swimming the instruments right up to where the action is, which is a new way to understand the ocean and the ice. And it’s pretty cool, because we can add those measurements over a mile away from the bore hole to seismic data from Kiya Riverman and ocean and radar data from Hot Water On Ice, and we get a new picture of how melting at the ice base is happening. Then you add together the work being done by MELT to the science from THOR, TARSAN, GHOST, DOMINOS, GHC, TIME and PROPHET and the whole Thwaites Glacier team can help us really know what’s happening now and what will happen next.

We may be social distancing, but the Icefin team is still #RemoteSciencing

It’s an unprecedented time for everyone, including the scientists and engineers who work on Icefin. Being away from our labs and workstations means the Icefin team members have to get creative with remote-sciencing to keep things moving forward in the time of Covid-19.

For some, that means engineering complex electronics on a fold-out table, for others it’s meant commandeering the living room or front porch for a quiet place to concentrate on data analysis and research. Wherever our team members are social distancing, we’re still remote-sciencing. Here’s what that looks like… multimeters, kiddie pools, computers, cats, and all!

Icefin’s Lead Electrical Engineer Daniel Dichek has been working on building and testing battery hardware on his home workbench.

Working on building and testing battery hardware

Postdoc and NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellow, Icefin’s Andy Mullen has been working in his home electronics lab setup. “I’ve been working on the software and electronics for a custom underwater microscopic imaging system for observing microbes in the ocean aboard Icefin. The internal components and underwater housings of the microscope are on the blue mat on the table,” he said.

Postdoc and NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellow, Icefin’s Andy Mullen has been working in his home electronics lab setup. "I've been working on the software and electronics for a custom underwater microscopic imaging system for observing microbes in the ocean aboard Icefin. The internal components and underwater housings of the microscope are on the blue mat on the table,” he said.

Along with working on the microscope itself, when the microscope needed a stand, Andy got creative while working from home and made one for it using LEGOS. He already had some at the house and they worked perfect!

He’s also been doing some 3D printing from home. “I have been making a manifold to route water for the custom water sampler that is being developed for Icefin.” These are pictures of the manifold at different stages of its fabrication: an empty 3D printer, the finished manifold still in the 3D printer, showing the manifold’s internal channels by holding it up to the sun, tapping the manifold holes, the manifold done with solenoids attached.

Graduate Student and Icefin Engineer Ben Hurwitz enjoyed working outside on his patio, complete with a kiddie pool, on a beautiful 85°F day in Atlanta.

Graduate Student and Icefin Engineer Ben Hurwitz enjoyed working outside on his patio, complete with a kiddie pool, on a beautiful 85°F day in Atlanta.

Icefin Primary Investigator and Lead Scientist Dr. Britney Schmidt has a purrrfect home office setup, can you spot the cat?

Frances Bryson is working on sampling systems for under ice environments, for both Icefin and VERNE projects. The arm here is a basic prototype Frances is using to act as a proof of concept and test out software and controls for a version that will eventually go on Icefin.

Research Engineer Anthony Spears has no shortage of screens in his home remote-sciencing setup!

Research Engineer Anthony Spears has no shortage of screens in his home remote-sciencing setup!

During social distancing, Research Scientist Peter Washam is looking into ocean circulation data from beneath Thwaites Glacier and Ross Ice Shelf, near the grounding line of Kamb Ice Stream. “The flow beneath in the ocean cavity beneath these two large bodies of ice is very different, with tides primarily moving water in an elliptical motion beneath Ross and freshwater production from melting apparently driving the circulation beneath Thwaites,” he said.

During social distancing, Research Scientist Peter Washam is looking into ocean circulation data from beneath Thwaites Glacier and Ross Ice Shelf, near the grounding line of Kamb Ice Stream. “The flow beneath in the ocean cavity beneath these two large bodies of ice is very different, with tides primarily moving water in an elliptical motion beneath Ross and freshwater production from melting apparently driving the circulation beneath Thwaites,” he said.

Graduate Student and Icefin Scientist Justin Lawrence is using Icefin’s custom data visualization dashboard to look at water column temperature and salinity under the Ross Ice Shelf.

Graduate Student and Icefin Scientist Justin Lawrence is using Icefin’s custom data visualization dashboard to look at water column temperature and salinity under the Ross Ice Shelf.

Tech Spotlight: Oculus Sonar

Curious about the scientific instruments Icefin has to help it do groundbreaking (and ice-breaking!) field work? From salinity and temperature readings, to seafloor imaging and sonar mapping, Icefin has a collection of instruments that help scientists look at all kinds of things under the ice.

Here, we’ll talk about Icefin’s Oculus sonar from Blueprint Subsea, which can be spotted on the nose of the vehicle in the video below, taken during a dive under sea ice near McMurdo Station in Antarctica.

Footage of Icefin under sea ice near McMurdo Station, Antarctica during the 2019-2020 field season. You can see Icefin’s blue Oculus sonar on the nose of the vehicle. Video was filmed by the Icefin team using a Trident ROV. Big thanks to Trident developer Eric Stackpole for getting us our Trident. Icefin work was supported by USAP, NSF, and NASA.

Both Icefin vehicles have Oculus MD750d sonars, including when they were deployed during the 2019-2020 field season (in McMurdo Sound, as well as at Thwaites Glacier and Kamb Ice Stream). The Oculus sonar used by Icefin is a compact model by Blueprint Subsea, which allows the vehicle to monitor long, narrow boreholes, and navigate beneath the ice in precarious locations, all while using the sonar to map interesting features on the ice and seafloor interfaces, including fractures, rifts, melting, and grounding zone environments.

In the photo below, along with some icicles (which we call Icefin-icles, since they formed on Icefin), you can see a close-up of the Oculus sonar – it’s the blue and black oval-shaped device on the front of Icefin.

“The sonar was simple to integrate into our vehicle and gives us great situational awareness during our missions. The support from the Oculus team was also outstanding,” said Anthony Spears, Icefin Research Engineer. “The most outstanding experience we have had was when Blueprint was able to manufacture and deliver an Oculus sonar to us in the deep field in Antarctica in less than two weeks to ensure full data collection capabilities during a very important field season.”

Icefin covered with icicles as water dripped down the vehicle while being retrieved from under the Kamb Ice Stream.
The blue and black Oculus sonar from Blueprint Subsea is visible on the nose of this Icefin vehicle, which is also covered in icicles.

But before heading out to the deep field camps, the team also spent about a month in McMurdo Sound deploying Icefin through the sea ice and swimming out below McMurdo Ice Shelf from October-November 2019. It’s easier for the team to take a few weeks getting the vehicles ready for the deep field while in reach of the resources and relative comfort of McMurdo Station. Moreover, the unique ice-ocean processes and ice environments around the area are good planetary analogs. McMurdo Ice Shelf is a smaller shelf stemming from the extreme northwestern corner of Ross Ice Shelf. By drilling through the relatively thin sea ice right at the edge, the team was able to map the base of the ice shelf, without requiring the support of a large hot water drill like at Thwaites Glacier and the Kamb Ice Stream.

A test stitch of Oculus sonar data from a dive near McMurdo station shows the McMurdo Ice Shelf and rift system, which is part of the extreme northwestern corner of Ross Ice Shelf.
A test stitch of Oculus sonar data from a dive near McMurdo station shows the underside of the ice of the McMurdo Ice Shelf and rift system, which is part of the extreme northwestern corner of Ross Ice Shelf.

In the early part of the field season, the Icefin team focused on a 4 km long section of a rift in the ice shelf that is continually active, most recently beginning a calving period in 2016. This rift has been mapped using remote sensing and GPR data from surface surveys, but no ice shelf rift has ever been mapped in detail by an underwater vehicle (though there have been some under ice mapping studies with vehicles like Autosub). Rifts are long, wide active fractures in ice shelves that fill in with marine ice and refrozen melt water, creating an “ice bridge” between the two once continuous sides of the fracture that started the rift opening. Rifts can continue to open, but be stabilized by the regrowth of ice in the rift, until ultimately the rift calves large icebergs. Using the Oculus sonar, Icefin was able to map several kilometers of the underwater landscape; part of the data is shown in the picture above. This data will help the Icefin team understand how ice base topography, circulation, and melt water affect the formation of ice in the rift, and how the rift is evolving in time.

This map of the Icefin survey of the McMurdo Ice Shelf Rift shows the 4 km section mapped using Oculus sonar. Pink lines are a driving route the team took across the sea ice (3-5m thick) to their three operating sites. The jagged edge is the edge of the ice shelf (~15m thick), and three launch sites (marked 19A, 19B, and 19C) were the starting point for five missions (colored lines) under the opening rift (the gray shaded area). Image and dives compiled by Justin Lawrence.
This map of the Icefin survey of the McMurdo Ice Shelf Rift shows the 4 km section mapped using Oculus sonar. Pink lines are a driving route the team took across the sea ice (3-5m thick) to their three operating sites. The jagged edge is the edge of the ice shelf (~15m thick), and three launch sites (marked 19A, 19B, and 19C) were the starting point for five missions (colored lines) under the opening rift (the gray shaded area). Image and dives compiled by Justin Lawrence.

“Forward-looking sonars are particularly valuable for understanding the scale of the environment the vehicle is operating in. With cameras we get great resolution, but range is typically limited to meters, due to how much energy lighting requires. With a sonar however, we can see tens to hundreds of meters in a wide swath. This lets us conduct mapping missions such as those under the rift. With the FLS we can see both edges of the feature and understand lengths, thickness trends, and variation in ice morphology indicative of changes in ocean properties,” said Justin Lawrence, Georgia Tech graduate student and Icefin team member.

During the 2019-2020 season, the Icefin team had equal efforts at both Thwaites Glacier and Ross Ice Shelf. In one field season, the Icefin crew had two teams, two vehicles, and two Oculus MD sonars operating at the same time, a major achievement for everyone involved! In both locations, the vehicles had to travel down narrow boreholes through about 600 meters of ice to reach the oceans below, described here. These results are currently being written up, and we’re looking forward to showing more once the papers are ready.

View of the Oculus sonar data (blue screen at left) being used by Britney Schmidt (hand) and Daniel Dichek to navigate Icefin as it approached the grounding line of Thwaites Glacier, January 2020.
View of the Oculus sonar data (blue screen at left) being used by Britney Schmidt (hand) and Daniel Dichek to navigate Icefin as it approached the grounding line of Thwaites Glacier, January 2020.

The Oculus sonar equipped on both icefin vehicles provided scientists with important data that will be used to better understand the nature of the Thwaites Glacier, the Ross Ice Shelf, grounding zones, and may provide insight into what ice-covered oceans on other worlds might be like. Sonars are also key parts of the navigation for underwater vehicles, and will be important for future spacecraft missions.

“The Oculus sonar has been a great addition to the Icefin platform. Not only has it performed flawlessly in the harsh Antarctic environment, it also plays a crucial role in how we navigate the under-ice environment. With no light and very little information about our surroundings we would be lost without the MD750d,” said Matt Meister, Icefin Lead Engineer.

Icefin’s work in Antarctica was funded by both NASA as part of PSTAR project RISE UP, and by NSF as part of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC). Both missions were the result of massive collaborations. The Thwaites project was a collaboration with the British Antarctic Survey and made possible by the ITGC, and included an critical contribution by the British team, who drilled the borehole. On the Ross Ice Shelf, the Icefin team worked with the Antarctica New Zealand Ross Ice Shelf Programme, which is funded by New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute (NZARI), with hot water drilling funded by the Victoria University of Wellington and managed by the VUW Antarctic Research Centre’s Science Drilling Office.

Our 2019-2020 Icefin field team during the last dive we did near McMurdo Base, before we split into two teams. Each team had a robot to conduct deep field dives, one below Thwaites Glacier and the other beneath Ross Ice Shelf.
Our 2019-2020 Icefin field team during the last dive we did near McMurdo Base, before we split into two teams. Each team had a robot to conduct deep field dives, one below Thwaites Glacier and the other beneath Ross Ice Shelf.

First look under Thwaites Glacier and Kamb Ice Stream

Georgia Tech scientists get first look deep under Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier and Kamb Ice Stream

ANTARCTICA — An international team including scientists from Georgia Tech captured new images and first-of-its-kind data from deep beneath an Antarctic glacier, which will help scientists to better understand the impact of one of Antarctica’s fastest changing regions and its impact on future sea level rise.

"It's our 'walking on the moon' moment." Thwaites Glacier Icefin quote

Their work will be featured as part of a special report on BBC World News on Tuesday, Jan. 28, in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the discovery of Antarctica.

Stationed in Antarctica for the last two months, the MELT (Melting at Thwaites grounding zone and its control on sea level) team, part of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, deployed ocean instruments and cored sediments to gather data on one of the most important and hazardous glaciers in Antarctica. The MELT team included Georgia Tech scientists who used an underwater robot named Icefin to navigate the waters beneath Thwaites Glacier and collect data from the grounding zone – the area where the glacier meets the sea.

Dr. Britney Schmidt, lead scientist for Icefin and associate professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, said the new data represented several firsts for her team, as well as for science as a whole.

“We designed Icefin to be able to finally enable access to grounding zones of glaciers, places where observations have been nearly impossible, but where rapid change is taking place,” said Schmidt, a co-investigator on the MELT project. “We’re proud of Icefin, since it represents a new way of looking at glaciers and ice shelves. For really the first time, we can drive miles under the ice to measure and map processes we can’t otherwise reach. We’ve taken the first close-up look at a grounding zone. It’s our ‘walking on the moon’ moment.”


Located in a remote part of Antarctica, where few scientists have ever ventured, the team battled sometimes hostile weather, extreme winds, and temperatures below -22 degrees Fahrenheit to get close enough to the Antarctic coastline for Icefin to reach the grounding zone.

In these trying conditions, the MELT team used hot water to drill through up to 2,300 feet – nearly a half mile – of ice to get to the ocean and the seafloor below. On Jan. 9 and 10, Icefin swam more than a mile from the drill site to the Thwaites grounding zone, to measure, image, and map the glacier’s melting and gather other important data that scientists can use to understand the changing landscape and conditions. Not only did the team put one Icefin robot down the borehole at Thwaites Glacier, but they did it with a second Icefin vehicle in collaboration with Antarctica New Zealand near the grounding zone of Kamb Ice Stream, part of the Ross Ice Shelf.

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Thwaites Glacier, which covers an area the size of Florida, is particularly susceptible to climate and ocean changes. Thwaites melting accounts for about 4 percent of global sea level rise, and the amount of ice flowing out of Thwaites and its neighbouring glaciers has nearly doubled in the past 30 years, making it one of Antarctica’s most rapidly changing regions.

"We're particularly concerned about Thwaites." Thwaites Glacier quoteDr. Keith Nicholls, an oceanographer from British Antarctic Survey and UK lead on the MELT team, said Icefin’s exploration of sediment and other conditions in the Thwaites grounding zone will help scientists determine how this region will change in the future and what kind of impact on sea level rise we can expect from these changes. The MELT team also deployed radars and oceanographic sensors, conducted seismic studies and took sediment cores from beneath the glacier, and deployed two moorings through the ice that will record ocean and ice conditions for the coming year to monitor changes at Thwaites.

“We know that warmer ocean waters are eroding many of West Antarctica’s glaciers, but we’re particularly concerned about Thwaites,” he said. “This new data will provide a new perspective of the processes taking place, so we can predict future change with more certainty”

The MELT project is funded by the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC), a collaboration between the U.S.’s National Science Foundation and the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council.

From left, (1) Icefin image of sediment laden ice at the grounding zone of Thwaites Glacier, Antarctica. (2) Icefin view of the grounding zone of Thwaites Glacier, Antarctica, in less than one meter of water. (3) Icefin image of sediments and rock in the ice at the grounding zone of Thwaites Glacier, Antarctica.
From left, (1) Icefin image of sediment laden ice at the grounding zone of Thwaites Glacier, Antarctica. (2) Icefin view of the grounding zone of Thwaites Glacier, Antarctica, in less than one meter of water. (3) Icefin image of sediments and rock in the ice at the grounding zone of Thwaites Glacier, Antarctica.

“To have the chance to do this at Thwaites Glacier, which is such a critical hinge point in West Antarctica, is a dream come true for me and my team. The data couldn’t be more exciting,” Schmidt said. “And exploring the grounding zones of two different glaciers in the same season is incredible.”

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In addition to the MELT project, Schmidt is the Primary Investigator for the RISE UP (Ross Ice Shelf and Europa Underwater Probe) project, which also had team members from Georgia Tech deployed in Antarctica this season.  RISE UP is a NASA-funded project that developed Icefin from a prototype to a full-fledged underwater vehicle and aims to develop technology for future missions to Jupiter’s moon Europa.

Both the MELT and RISE UP teams spent time at McMurdo Station, Antarctica conducting research, before simultaneously deploying to more remote areas. Antarctic logistics for both projects were supported by the National Science Foundation, under the United States Antarctic Program.

RISE UP‘s work at Kamb Ice Stream came as part of a collaboration with two projects supported by Antarctica New Zealand: the NZARI Ross Ice Shelf Programme led by Dr Christina Hulbe of the University of Otago, and the NZ Antarctic Science Platform’s Antarctic Ice Dynamics project, led by Dr Huw Horgan of Victoria University. 

RISE UP team members deployed along with the New Zealand hot water drilling and science teams to study the Kamb Ice Stream – a river of ice – on the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica. Their goal was to explore and map areas near the grounding zone to better understand its flow and the surrounding environment.  Icefin’s work at Kamb Ice Stream will continue next season as part of Dr. Horgan’s project.

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“We now have, effectively, a transect of conditions from the front of the Ross Ice Shelf to the grounding line,” sadi Christina Hulbe of the Ross Ice Shelf Programme, which finished its final year of field work in late December. “In addition to Icefin’s work, we’ve installed our third ice-anchored mooring, collected cores for sedimentary and microbiological analysis, we’ve imaged the ice optically and using radar, and made high resolution observations of ocean conditions.”

The RISE UP team completed three dives with Icefin, and team member Ben Hurwitz, a graduate student at Georgia Tech who works on Icefin’s technology, said the season was wildly successful, adding the team was “excited to share what we found in the coming months.”

Notes on the projects:

The International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration: www.thwaitesglacier.org

The MELT Project is lead by Keith Nicholls , an oceanographer with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), and Dr. David Holland, an applied mathematician (with a background in fluid dynamics) at New York University, with co-leads Dr. Eric Rignot from the University of California at Irving, Dr. John Paden with George Mason University, Dr. Sridhar Anandakrishnan out of Pennsylvania State University, and Dr. Britney Schmidt at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

RISE UP’s field work at Kamb Ice Stream came as part of two science projects funded by Antarctica New Zealand and the Victoria University of Wellington Science Drilling Office. The other research partners involved on the project are: The University of Otago, Victoria University, University of Canterbury and University of Waikato, NIWA and GNS Science from NZ and the ROSETTA project and Universty of California, Santa Cruz in the US.

Project RISE UP Could Help Scientists Explore Europa’s Ice-Covered Ocean

Based in McMurdo Station, Antarctica for the first part of their 2019 field season, the team on Project RISE UP is using its underwater oceanographer robot Icefin to study environmental and biological factors that influence habitability in oceans beneath ice.

Project RISE UP, an acronym which stands for “Ross Ice Shelf and Europa Underwater Probe”, is using Icefin to explore ice-ocean environments and the limits of life here on Earth, in order to help develop techniques that might be used for future exploration of ice-ocean ecosystems.

NASA confirmed in 2019 that Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, had plumes of water vapor above its surface, which scientists had long expected from the ice-covered world. In addition, using observations from ground-based telescopes, “scientists have found strong evidence that beneath the ice crust is an ocean of liquid water or slushy ice,” according to NASA. These and other factors make Europa a prime subject in the search for other habitable worlds in our solar system.

Georgia Tech graduate student and member of the RISE UP team in Antarctica, Justin Lawrence‘s thesis is a major driver of work being done in the 2019 field season. He said the science and technology being developed through RISE UP could be used in the future exploration of icy worlds in our solar system, such as Europa.

“For my thesis, I’m mapping biological water mass properties including cellular abundance and microbial diversity with physical water properties such as temperature, salinity, and dissolved oxygen,” Lawrence said. “When combined, these variables help us understand how nutrient and carbon inputs from the open ocean and melting ice influence habitability below ice.”

In other words, studying biological and environmental factors that influence life in ice-ocean ecosystems here on Earth, will help scientists understand habitability in ice-covered oceans elsewhere.

“Earth is not the only body in our solar system with a liquid, salty ocean, and other ocean worlds such as Jupiter’s moon Europa might prove habitable to novel forms of life,” Lawrence explained. “To better understand how ecosystems under ice could work on other planets, we are developing hardware (Icefin), software, and scientific methods to first understand the interactions between life and ice in Antarctica.”

 

The diagram depicts the unique circulation patterns that result from atmospheric cooling of the surface ocean, sea ice formation, ocean currents, and ice shelf melting to distribute nutrients below Ross Ice Shelf
The diagram above depicts the unique circulation patterns that result from atmospheric cooling of the surface ocean, sea ice formation, ocean currents, and ice shelf melting to distribute nutrients below Ross Ice Shelf. The Ross Ice Shelf, located in Antarctica, is a floating mass of ice the size of Spain, which gets up to nearly 1 kilometer thick.

In addition to research being conducted at McMurdo Station in the 2019 field season, RISE UP will also fly with Icefin to the Ross Ice Shelf grounding zone, in collaboration with New Zealand’s Ross Ice Shelf Programme, where they will deploy Icefin along with other oceanographic sensors through a 35 cm wide, 700 m deep hole in the ice to explore the ocean below (as shown in the diagram above).