Astrobiologists suspect that there is alien life beyond the reach of our solar system, in the oceans hidden beneath the icy crusts of the moons around Jupiter and Saturn. But unlike the surface of Mars, which can be explored by rovers and landers, this mysterious ocean is currently beyond our reach. In an effort to change that, researchers came together this year to design a novel mission that could finally reveal what lies on distant water worlds.
The proposed probe, called a cryobot, is a cylindrical robot capable of heating the ice to drill into it, allowing the bot to access the liquid ocean water beneath. The workshop, held in February at the California Institute of Technology, brought together more than 40 researchers to mature the concept of the technology. Participants assessed the power, thermal, mobility, and communications systems required for such a mission, as described by NASA in a new article.
Scientists are taking seriously the idea that there is a form of life that exists on Earth, and including observatories in space the Webb Space Telescope and finally the Habitable Worlds Observatory designed by collecting data on exoplanets where alien life can form. Those worlds, however, are too far away for direct exploration. Instead, our best hope is to see where liquid water is likely to be in our solar system.
The concept works like this: A lander would land on an icy moon and place a cylindrical probe to break through the icy surface using hot-water drilling. The cryobot has an approximately 10 kilowatt nuclear power system that will be protected within a structure that protects it from the high pressure of the deep ocean.
A heat management system will keep internal temperatures at a safe level and properly distribute heat throughout the system. A water jetting and cutting system will be included in the device to allow the cryobot to clear rocks, particulate matter, and salt encased in ice.
Workshop participants concluded that demonstrating risk mitigation systems is a high priority for future conceptual work.
They also determined that any cryobot deployed on a moon would need a communications link that would allow it to send information to a surface lander, which would in turn deliver the data to Earth. While fiber optic cables are an industry standard, NASA explained, movements of the ice shelf could cut the connection between the lander and the probe, which could be kilometers under the ice. Wireless communication methods are on the table, including radio, acoustic, and magnetic transceivers.
Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus are of particular interest to astrobiologists. NASA and ESA have committed missions to explore Europe and developed a mission concept for visiting Enceladus. NASA’s Europa Clipper It is expected to launch in October 2024, and its observations will inform the ideal design for a cryobot probe, which should break the icy surface of the moon and then relay data from the ocean below. The Enceladus Orbilander will orbit and then land on the Saturnian moon, looking for signs that the ocean floor may harbor life. Earlier this year, a team of scientists have found evidence that phosphorus, an essential component of life as we know it, was broken by Enceladus, whose Plumes of water vapor can be over 6,000 miles long.
Recent workshop participants concluded that the mission concept “remains feasible, scientifically compelling, and the most plausible near-term method of directly searching for life in space on an ocean world, ” according to a NASA.
It will be years before we see a probe touch one of these icy moons, but we’re getting closer to actually exploring an alien ocean.
More: Evidence of Life May Exist Beneath Europa’s Frozen Surface