back to article NASA mulls going all steam-punk with a fleet of jumping robots to explore Saturn and Jupiter's mysterious moons

NASA is mulling sending a fleet of steam-powered robots, capable of hopping large distances, to Jupiter's Europa and Saturn's Enceladus to study the surface of the moons. The gizmos, known as Steam Propelled Autonomous Retrieval Robots for Ocean Worlds or SPARROW for short, are quite odd: disc-shaped robots equipped with …

  1. 89724102172714182892114I7551670349743096734346773478647892349863592355648544996312855148587659264921

    >I've seen things you people wouldn't believe...

    ...robots gangs... steam jumping... deep into Uranus

    1. NoneSuch Silver badge

      The full quote.

      "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die."

      1. A Nother Handle

        "So it goes."

        1. Francis Boyle Silver badge

          The actual quote is redundant

          given it's stored at memory location 0x5EC3A9653B8AEB4462F0C6D2FC70CDF62F0C6D2FC70CDE18BC31B4BF1C3379 in most geek brains.

    2. hplasm

      Oh, the huge manatee!

      "So many body bags...and ball sacks." /Bender--->

  2. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    "so that whenever they run short of ice for propulsion"

    I hope that the bouncy guys have a very good notion of how much ice they have left, and how much it will take to get them back to the lander.

    Otherwise, if they run out and are a few miles away from said lander, well, they'll be stuck and that would be too bad. I like the idea of bouncing balls for Science.

    1. Muscleguy

      Re: "so that whenever they run short of ice for propulsion"

      Maybe they could use other bots to deliver ice to stranded bots? I would think that would be a fairly trivial bit of programming. If they can pick up ice from the lander/processor they can drop it off as well.

  3. Twanky

    ...steam-powered robots capable of hopping large distances to Europa, Enceladus, or Titan...

    Helluva hop.

  4. Blofeld's Cat

    Hmm ...

    "... using chemical propellants as fuel is out of the question ..."

    Place: An underground bunker on Titan. Time: The near future.

    A bottle green creature leans back in its seat and steeples four of its front appendages. A similar creature crouches before it.

    "And the invaders? How are they progressing?"

    "Reports say their mother ship is tearing up rock from beneath the surface, melting it and passing it to their attack ships. These ships in turn are vaporising the rock and blasting it down over the surface, before leaping away to attack another district."

    "I see. A curious strategy."

    "We are receiving similar reports from Europa and Enceladus, Emperor."

    The bottle green creature sighs and furrows two of its brows.

    "You realise, of course, this means war."

    1. Muscleguy

      Re: Hmm ...

      With the temperature on Titan that conversation would likely take decades and their thought processes would be too slow to even notice steam powered bots buzzing around.

      I have an old German animation DasRadrorTheWheel.mp4 about two animate piles of rocks who observe human society from stone age to civilisation to the collapse of same. All at a hugely accelerated speed since their thought processes are, um, glacial. I’m reminded of that.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    SPARROW??! Pfft. Try again







  6. Julz


    See title...

    1. Kane Silver badge

      Re: Tarrahawks!

      Man, that brings back some memories!

  7. Kane Silver badge





    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: ...

      Sadly, humanity has never been very good at taking such advice.

      ("What, they don't want us to land on Europa?! There must be something valuable there they don't want us to get!")

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: ...

        Lakes of crude oil?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: ...

          The fabled N95 mask mountain!

  8. Pen-y-gors


    If the little things can go miles at a time, how accurately can they navigate to get back to the lander to refuel?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Control?

      They just ask the local indigenous population.

      'Scuse me? Do you happen to know where I parked?

      As long as they don't get clamped of course. They should also equip the probe with a little green can with a barely functional thin plastic nozzle, just in case...

      1. Glen 1

        Re: Control?

        If they plant the base in the impound lot, you could get a free* ride back to base.

        *free apart from the fines and fees etc

  9. batfink

    Required accessories

    I would hope that the development teams have been issued with the requisite top hats and goggles.

    1. MyffyW Silver badge

      Re: Required accessories

      ...and whale-boned bustiers of course

  10. twellys


    Ah... obviously very similar to the Spectrum's Trailblazer (

    I'm ready NASA! NASA!

    (As I have played Trailblazer!)



  11. Mage


    Remember the old story with Earth & the "Aliens" (Jovians?) negotiating. Earth sends a representative to negotiate but neglect to mention it's a robot. The Aliens are shocked by the robustness of the "human" and surrender.

    Short story. I forget the title and author, likely 1940s to 1960s.

    1. Cuddles

      Re: Ha!

      I believe that would be "Victory Unintentional" by Isaac Asmiov.

      1. Mage

        Re: "Victory Unintentional" by Isaac Asmiov.

        I wondered, because hardly any of his stories have actual "aliens". I read an explanation once by him as to why this is the case. It's suggested that the people in Nightfall (the original short rather than later expanded novel) are "aliens", not humans.

        Aliens of course claim we are Tellurians or Terrans (from the Classical Terra and Tellus) as all sentient, tool using creatures with a proper extendible language are humans. Don't confuse an extendible vocabulary with a language. Rooks are sentient, self aware, can use tools and have a big vocabulary, but are not humans because they don't have Language,

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Ah, memories...

      "Victory Unintentional" by Issac Asimov (a sequel to "Not Final!".)

  12. Pete 2 Silver badge

    Just sublime!

    > each SPARROW will melt ice from the surface of these moons to create steam.

    Have they missed a step: ice -> steam. Or is the atmospheric pressure really that low?

    1. Muscleguy

      Re: Just sublime!

      Atmospheric pressure does not exist except on Triton so the triple point is really easy to reach.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    "It could be porous, it might be riddled with crevasses. But SPARROW has total terrain agnosticism; it has complete freedom to travel across an otherwise inhospitable terrain."

    So it lands in a crevasse and its thrusters are pointing sideways at the wall. What next?

    (I'm sure they've thought of this but the artist's illustration doesn't show a gimbal mount for the thrusters in the cage.)

    1. Francis Boyle Silver badge

      Bend it like Beckham

      It's a ball. The thrusters can point any damn way they want.

    2. Muscleguy

      Re: Pinball?

      Short burst, it rolls. Repeat until thrusters are facing downwards. Maybe fire thrusters on only one side as well to aid rolling.

  14. MacroRodent


    Article neglected to mention where the energy comes from for this ice-melting and steam generation. As sunlight is scant, especially on Titan and Enceladus, they must use nuclear power, or an RTG. Maybe each football has a conventional battery, but the mothership needs a lot of energy to charge the fleet.

    1. MyffyW Silver badge

      Re: Nuclear?

      Use of a RTG should rattle certain peoples cages although I'm all for the atom-punk aesthetic myself. I really don't see the problem with certain chemical propulsion (e.g. LOX and Kerosene) although I'l admit we probably don't want to drop unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine onto any putative lifeforms. Orange is so last decade.

    2. Muscleguy

      Re: Nuclear?

      I’m just thinking of how hard the ice was on that comet, so hard the hardness measuring hammer broke at ‘concrete’. If the ice on the moons is anywhere in the same ballpark . . .

  15. Inventor of the Marmite Laser Silver badge

    Frosty the Blowman

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Yes. send in the robots ...

  17. Eclectic Man Silver badge

    How about ...

    ... encasing a Mercury lander in tanks of pure water. Landing it on the dark side of Mercury to do some science. When Mercury eventually rotates and the lander gets to be on the sunny side, the deep frozen ice provide a temporary heat shield for some 'sunny side' science, before being used as steam to propel the lander off the planet to be returned to Earth with surface samples?

    OK, ok, its is sci-fi, but you never know, some Rocket Scientist out there could be thinking "it might, just, work!"

  18. Anonymous Coward

    Joking aside

    This is brilliant outside the box {inside the ball?) [okay,most joking aside] thinking on the part of the boffins.

    It's still just a concept with details still being studied but for a way to be mobile on an ice moon with an unknown surface consistency and contamination constraints it makes sense versus a traditional wheeled rover which may not be able to grip the ice or, conversely, may get bogged down in snow like ice.

    For details see -

  19. Charlie van Becelaere


    "Each complete bot is about the size of a soccer ball...."

    That's nearly the same as a football, no?

    1. Muscleguy

      Re: Units

      Smaller than a basketball but bigger than a softball.

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