Jupiter's moon Europa: Send a submarine to explore it?
Jupiter's moon Europa is a icy shell with an underground ocean. The new movie 'Europa Report' is based on real science, and NASA ideas about how to explore Jupiter's fourth largest moon.
Jupiter's icy moon Europa is shrouded in mystery.Skip to next paragraph
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Scientists have long been intrigued by Jupiter's fourth largest moon with its underground ocean and icy shell. Researchers have said that Europa's saltwater ocean could harbor life, and some have theorized that it is the most likely place to find life in the solar system.
"[Europa] is one of the premier places to search for living life, that is, life that's alive today, life that we can poke and prod at and ask this fundamental question of what makes it tick," said Kevin Hand, the deputy chief scientist of solar system exploration at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Is its fundamental biochemistry the same as that on Earth or is it different? Is the origin of life easy or hard? There are all questions that Europa could potentially answer." [See Photos of Europa, An Icy Moon of Jupiter]
Unmanned robotic landers, deep space probes and even manned missions could help researchers answer some of those outstanding questions.
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Scientists know that Europa is covered in a shell of ice, and data suggest that an ocean of liquid water also lurks below the surface. Some hope to send a submersible with the ability to dive beneath the ice to explore Europa's salty interior.
Building a submersible
In 2011, NASA awarded Stone Aerospace $4 million to continue the development of its "cryobot" project designed to autonomously explore the ocean of the moon.
"When we speak of the Europa mission at our shop we are talking about going for the gold ring: landing on the surface of Europa; sending a nuclear-powered cryobot carrier vehicle through the ice crust; discharging a nuclear-powered 'fast mover' autonomous underwater carrier vehicle that has planet-scale range, and selectively launching a series of miniaturized, highly intelligent AUVs [Autonomous Underwater Vehicles] to go into the more dangerous areas (e.g. around black smokers, up into ice cracks, into corrosive chemical plumes) to search for and collect biological samples and bring them back to the mother ship," Stone Aerospace CEO Bill Stone wrote told SPACE.com in an email.
Ideally, the robotic instruments included with the lander would come equipped with life-detecting instrumentation. [6 Most Likely Places for Alien Life in the Solar System]
Scientists are getting closer to developing viable versions of these scientific instruments that could travel to Europa, Stone said.
"The U.S. science community is today, thanks to NASA funding, on the verge of having available portable molecular DNA sequencers that could allow a Europa AUV to characterize life found on Europa at the microbial scale and then to return to the cryobot and uplink the information to the lander and back to Earth," Stone said.
Flybys and remote sensing
Scientists can also learn about Europa through remote sensing, using spacecraft flybys of the moon like NASA's Galileo spacecraft did after it arrived at Jupiter in 1995.
"There's a vast array of things you can learn from satellite observations of a planet," said Jeffrey Plaut, a NASA scientist at JPL. "If you're talking about Europa specifically, the science objectives have been laid out pretty clearly over the years for various space-born observations of Europa. Some very fundamental things like: How thick is the ice shell? Where is the ocean?"