Nuclear-Powered "Tunnelbot" May Bore Through Europa's Ice in Search of Life

Tuesday, 18 December 2018 - 12:13PM
Technology
Solar System
Alien Life
Tuesday, 18 December 2018 - 12:13PM
Nuclear-Powered "Tunnelbot" May Bore Through Europa's Ice in Search of Life
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We've seen some pretty crazy proposals for planet-exploring robots, not the least of which is a shape-shifting robot that can explore extraterrestrial skies, oceans, and caves. There have also been some pretty wild proposals for probes, like that submarine designed to swim through the methane seas of Saturn's moon Titan. Still, when it comes to awesome-sounding space exploration proposals, few can top a nuclear-powered tunnelbot. Best of all, it'll be looking for alien life on one of the solar system's best candidates for hosting it: Jupiter's moon Europa.

The proposal is still in its early stages, but here's how its authors describe the situation on Europa: "An ocean in contact with a silicate interior makes Europa...a prime location for life. This possibility is compounded if geologic processes within the ice shell allow surface materials to mix with the ocean and recharge chemical gradients required for life. Unfortunately, this ice shell represents a barrier to direct exploration." To deal with the ice shell, they've outlined the design of a "tunnelbot" that would use heat from a nuclear reactor (or NASA's General Purpose Heating Source devices) to melt the ice and burrow several miles into the shell to arrive at the ocean beneath.

To ensure that the tunnelbot can send its findings back to Earth, the team also described a system of repeaters that the robot would install along its way, which would allow it to send signals out of the ice shaft. However, there are still a number of challenges to overcome before putting this idea into practice, one of the main ones being the deployment of the probe on Europa's surface. Still, it's an exciting idea, and one that promises to find evidence of current or past alien life in our Solar System, though it probably won't be the flying saucer kind.
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