We Could Uncover Europa's Secrets By Blowing Part of It Up

Thursday, 09 November 2017 - 11:05AM
Thursday, 09 November 2017 - 11:05AM
We Could Uncover Europa's Secrets By Blowing Part of It Up
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Image credit: NASA

An explosive new plan for exploring Jupiter's moon Europa could finally reveal if the planet is hiding alien life beneath its icy surface. 

As if space exploration weren't difficult enough, some of our solar system's most-likely candidates for hosting alien lifeEuropa chief among them, are also covered in ice.

One of Jupiter's moons, Europa is surrounded by a layer of impenetrable ice. Scientists would love a chance to peer beneath its frozen exterior to see far down to the moon's actual rocky surface, but the logistics of organizing a lander probe that could pull off such a mission and give us a close look at what's going on down there would simply take too much resources at present.

Now, some scientists have proposed an innovative new novel solution to learning what's below Europa's ice. Instead of a probe having to go down to the ice, the scientists want to bring the ice to the probe, by way of an enormous impact explosion.

The plan is simple: send a flyby probe to scope out Europa and other nearby moons, and attach a second, smaller probe to the first one.

Then, upon arrival at Europa, the second probe can detach, hurtle down to the moon's surface, crash into the ice, and send debris flying up into the atmosphere, so that the first probe can document the process and get a really good look at what's going on down there.

According to Peter Wurz of the University of Switzerland:

Opening quote
""The descent probe has the potential to provide a high science return to a mission at a low extra level of complexity, engineering effort, and risk. A lander is much more complex, thus riskier, much heavier, and much more expensive than a descent probe. A lander is typically a mission by itself and is the ultimate goal in planetary exploration. A descent probe would be much cheaper and would be an addition to flyby mission."
Closing quote

If this plan goes ahead, it will cost around $116 million, and would involve a cube-shaped probe that weighs around 220lb. The probe would travel around 2.5 miles in Europa's atmosphere, picking up speed, before slamming down into the moon's surface, kicking up a cloud of ice and rock.

There are, understandably, a few concerns that have been raised with regards to a plan to deliberately blow up a small chunk of a foreign moon.

The biggest and most important question to be asked here involves the Prime Directive, as defined by Star Trek—is it appropriate for Earthlings to swan about the solar system as if we own the place, dropping heavy stuff onto other moons and planets just to see things go boom?

Part of the reason why the Cassini probe was deliberately driven into the intense heat of Saturn was that scientists were worried about it crashing down on Titan, a moon with a similar environment to Europa.

The danger was that Cassini might damage any life forms that could possibly be living on Titan, or else, that Earth bacteria could infect the moon, spreading quickly as a result of our own foolish eagerness to explore the universe.

It's been theorized that if alien life does exist on a frozen planet or moon like Europa, it would live underneath the icy outer layer. Thus, flinging junk at Europa would be hugely unethical at best, and a potential declaration of war at worst.

Many at NASA are expecting to find sentient life forms down there, and if our strategy for trying to make contact with the potential creatures that may live on Europa involves dropping things on them to see what happens, we do look more than a little hostile.

As a point of principle, NASA doesn't seem particularly keen to be beholden to the rules of inter-species etiquette as set down by a fictional television series like Star Trek, and won't be following the Prime Directive when dealing with the possibility of alien life on other planets.

If astronomers think that enough new information can be gained from slamming a probe into the side of Europa, there's a good chance that someone at NASA might greenlight this new project.

If that's the case, while there is a chance that the icy moon may hold life, it's likely that the mission would go ahead anyway, because at the end of the day, nobody becomes an astronomer without gaining a vested interest in seeing the cosmos up close, and sometimes the best way to achieve this is to destroy parts of the cosmos to help scientists get a better view.

Just don't be too surprised if NASA accidentally discovers a sentient race that takes such a probe collision as a sign of aggression, and instantly launches a counter-offensive. In fairness, we'd deserve everything they could throw at us.

We Could Uncover Europa's Secrets By Blowing Part of It Up