Europe is Jupiter’s most well-known satellite, with a liquid ocean under its ice cover. Researchers hope that there can be life in the ocean. But to test such a hypothesis is not an easy task, because, according to the researchers’ estimates, the ice thickness on Europe may reach 30 kilometers.
The NASA’s Glenn Research COMPASS team has developed a probe that can reach the ocean. The nuclear-powered robot will tunnel its way through the ice shell and collect research samples on the way.
The researchers have developed two versions of the new robot, one fitted out with a small nuclear reactor and the other carrying just a module with a radioactive source. In both cases, the vehicle will use the excess heat of the radioactive decay reaction to melt the ice and dig deep into the planet.
As it tunnels forward, the robot will analyse ice samples that will help understand if there is life on Europa or it has ever existed.
The device may come across inner lakes in the ice thickness, from which it will also take samples. To transmit data, the probe will pull along a fiber optic cable connected to the telecommunication station on the satellite surface, which will maintain contact with the Earth.
NASA’s idea will take years of preparatory work to materialise. One of the key challenges is not to disrupt the ecosystem that could potentially exist in the ocean and Europa’s ice shell. Delivery of a heavy vehicle to Jupiter’s satellite will also be a difficult endeavour.
The researchers continue to develop the probe’s concept, analysing potential problems that may emerge in actual operation.