Keynote: Robots Under the Ice, and One Day, in Space?

Prof. Britney Schmit, Astronomy & EAS

Using new robotic capabilities, we are working to gather unique new data relevant to climate and planetary science, and develop techniques for exploring the Earth and one day Jupiter’s moon Europa, an ice-covered world not so unlike our own. Beneath ice shelves on Earth, processes such as accretion, melt and circulation mediate the interaction between the ocean and the ice. These are an important element of Earth’s climate system, contributing to the evolution of the cryosphere, and in some cases can destabilize ice shelves and ice sheets in our warming climate. And yet despite the critical role of these processes in a changing world, they are extremely challenging to observe given the harsh environment and thickness of the ice. Exploring the cryosphere can also form the foundation of our understanding of other ocean worlds, and provide a test bed for their exploration. To address the limitations in our observations, we developed an under ice robotic platform, Icefin, to explore beneath the ice and reach previously inaccessible regions that are critical to observe to understand these complex systems. In this presentation, I will discuss the development of Icefin, and highlight our work in Antarctica. Icefin’s accomplishments include first of their kind observations of grounding zone environments under the Ross Ice shelf and Thwaites Glacier during the austral summers 2017-2022, supported by NASA, NSF, NERC and Antarctica New Zealand. These observations show that ice loss under ice shelves is strongly influenced by ice base topography, and imply that melting along sloped faces and within crevasses must be considered in models of ice shelf response. I’ll also discuss frontiers in polar observations that might be addressed by robotic systems.

Dr. Britney Schmidt is an Associate Professor in Astronomy and Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Cornell University. Prior to joining Cornell, she was a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She and her team develop robotic tools and instruments and use spacecraft to study planets. Schmidt has a long history of NASA spacecraft involvement, including the Dawn and Europa Clipper missions and the Europa Lander and LUVOIR Space Telescope mission concepts. She has conducted seven field seasons in Antarctica and one in the Arctic leading large science and technology programs. She received a B.S. in Physics from the University of Arizona, and PhD in Geophysics and Space Physics from UCLA.