Thermal Heads for Melt Drilling to Subglacial Lakes: Design and Testing

Astrobiology. 2020 Jan;20(1):142-156. doi: 10.1089/ast.2019.2103. Epub 2020 Jan 3.


Antarctic subglacial lakes are often considered suitable analogues to extraterrestrial subglacial aqueous environments. Recently, an environmentally friendly RECoverable Autonomous Sonde (RECAS) was designed at the Polar Research Center of Jilin University (JLU) to sample the water of subglacial lakes without contamination. In this regard, the development of a fast-penetration thermal head is the key issue for RECAS. Two different prototypes were designed and tested at the JLU ice-well to determine the optimal design and operation parameters of the thermal heads. Practical top and bottom thermal heads were then designed based on one of the prototypes, which can penetrate ice at an average rate of 1.88 m/h. The test results for the RECAS thermal heads show that the rate of penetration (ROP) can be 1.80-1.95 m/h in -10°C ice, and the axial load on the thermal head only affects the ROP when it is lower than a specified threshold. The decrease of the ice temperature from -10°C to -30°C leads to a decrease of 17% in the ROP. The bottom thermal head can drill into dirty ice, and a simple collector positioned above the head can collect solid particles suspended in the melted ice. The top thermal head exhibited a long lifetime and stable heating performance after being powered in water for 2 weeks. In addition, the ice temperature near the borehole was monitored to evaluate the range of heat disturbance caused by the thermal head.

Keywords: Design and testing; Icy satellites; Rate of penetration; Subglacial lakes; Thermal head.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aluminum / chemistry
  • Dust / analysis
  • Ice Cover*
  • Lakes*
  • Temperature*


  • Dust
  • Aluminum