For two weeks this spring, the robot DEPTHX (or the Deep Phreatic Thermal Explorer) explored Mexico's mysterious El Zacatón sinkhole, the deepest sinkhole in the world. On board: autonomous navigation and mapping systems developed by Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute.
During the NASA-funded exploration, DEPTHX found the sinkhole's previously undiscovered bottom — 318 meters deep — and created a sonar map of its inner dimensions.
It also discovered that the geothermal sinkhole, or cenote, wasn't connected with neighboring cenotes in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. And it brought back numerous samples of water and the gooey biofilm coating the cenote's walls.
Carnegie Mellon's David Wettergreen, the associate research professor who headed the university's contingent of the research team, says he's pleased with DEPTHX's performance.
"We hit our technical objectives in creating a system that could explore and map autonomously," said Wettergreen.
Beyond gathering information on sinkholes, DEPTHX's technologies might be useful in future underwater explorations, like exploring the oceans hidden under the icy crust of Europa, one of Jupiter's moons.
For the near term, a project recently approved by NASA will use these technologies to explore the waters below the ice of Antarctica's West Lake Bonney.