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17 Dec, 2018 20:39

Nuclear-powered bot to help find alien life: Scientists want to melt icy crust on Jupiter’s moon

Nuclear-powered bot to help find alien life: Scientists want to melt icy crust on Jupiter’s moon

A nuclear tunnel probe that will penetrate Europa’s icy crust to find clues about whether this moon, one of dozens orbiting Jupiter, is a host to life, has been suggested by a group of NASA scientists.

Researchers believe Europa is a potential candidate for hosting alien life. They think its icy crust could be hiding a water ocean –and even life– within, but thus far they’ve been unable to see what’s underneath the ice, which could be anything from 2 km to 30 km thick.  

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NASA’s Glenn Research COMPASS team have come up with an idea to penetrate the ice and then get some answers.

Addressing an American Geophysical Union meeting on Friday, researchers explained a “nuclear powered tunneling probe” could melt through the ice, allowing access to the mysterious content below. The ‘tunnelbot’ could bring with it “a payload that can search for nested, corroborative evidence for extant/extinct life.”

The group explained that they had performed a concept study using a tunnelbot that would “assess the habitability of the ice shell and underlying ocean.”

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The probe would be used to test the base of Europa’s surface, where deeper ice may mix with more shallow ice. It would also gather several samples of different layers of the ice shell and look for microbial biofilms.  

“We didn’t worry about how our tunnelbot would make it to Europa or get deployed into the ice,” said Andrew Dombard, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois. “We just assumed it could get there and we focused on how it would work during descent to the ocean.”

The COMPASS team is a multidisciplinary group set up to come up with technology to overcome the challenges of space exploration. Although we’re a long way off from departing Earth for a new life on Europa, the team will continue to come up with new ideas that can bring us closer to learning whether Europa is harboring life in its secret ocean.

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