On Jupiter's moon, a plan to drill for extraterrestrial life
A joint project between NASA and European Space Agency would send a mole-like thermal drill designed to bore into the icy surface of Jupiter's moon Europa in an attempt to search for signs of extraterrestrial life.
A mole-like thermal drill designed to cut through the icy surface of Jupiter's moon Europa could be on a future mission slated for launch in 2020.Skip to next paragraph
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Such a device would represent the best of both worlds by using heat to melt through the ice and rotating drill blades to clear away rocky material. The drill would be nestled inside a larger penetrator probe that would burrow itself into Europa's icy shell.
"Penetrators are the most feasible, cheapest and safest option for a landing on Europa today, and the knowledge to build those is there," said Peter Weiss, a post-doc now at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in France.
He and his colleagues at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University worked with other researchers at the Institut fuer Weltraumforschung in Graz, Austria on a study detailed in the January issue of the journal Advances in Space Research.
NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have teamed up on the Europa Jupiter System Mission (EJSM), with both Russia and Japan also showing interest. The mission could be composed of several orbiters peering down at Europa, but Russia has its eyes on a possible lander — and the Russians have already built penetrators for past missions, such as the failed Mars 96 mission.
"A thermal drill could be the 'nose' of a penetrator, to taste the ice of Europa," Weiss explained. [Photos of Jupiter's moons.]
Drilling gets hot
Any landing probe that wants to search for signs of life on Europa must go deeper than two meters into the surface ice, because heavy radiation and particle bombardment would have erased any biological traces in the top layer.
Having a robotic lander make a soft landing before preparing to drill would be a more complicated and expensive task compared to a penetrator, Weiss said. A thermal drill could simply deploy from the side of the penetrator after impact, and begin drilling through the pristine ice below to sample material at depths of up to 10 meters.
Estimates for the thickness of Europa's ice shell vary between a few kilometers and tens of kilometers, but Weiss says it doesn't make sense to go much deeper than 10 meters because of the current state of technology.
For instance, the drill would be tethered to the penetrator by a communication cable, and the length of cable would be limited based on how much the probe could carry. This cable would allow data collected from the drill to snake back to the main scientific instruments in the penetrator, and then the data would get beamed up to an orbiter.