Nuclear Powered Drilling Bot to Look for Life on Europa

Jupiter's moon, Europa has water underneath its icy surface that could host microbial life.
Jessica Miley

Scientists from the University of Illinois, Chicago have presented a new proposal for how to explore the possibility of life on Jupiter's moon Europa.

Europa has been extensively observed by NASA's Galileo spacecraft with observations suggesting that there is a liquid ocean under the thick ice that forms Europa's surface. 

This ocean could host microbial life or evidence of now-extinct microbial life. Getting through this thick ice to take samples of the ocean has been a major tactical problem for scientists.

"Estimates of the thickness of the ice shell range between 2 and 30 kilometers (1.2 and 18.6 miles), and is a major barrier any lander will have to overcome in order to access areas we think have a chance of holding biosignatures representative of life on Europa," said Andrew Dombard.

Dombard is an associate professor of Earth and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. 

Tunnel probe would look for life in ice and liquid

Dombard and his colleagues have developed one possible way of accessing Europa’s liquid: a nuclear-powered tunneling probe.

The idea was presented this week at the American Geophysical Union meeting in Washington, D.C. Dombard and D’Arcy Meyer-Dombard, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences at UIC, work as part of a group of scientists on the NASA Glenn Research COMPASS team. 

The group has designed the concept of a nuclear-powered “tunnel bot” that could pierce the thick ice crust of Europa and use onboard scientific equipment to look for signs of life, both present and extinct.

The bot could also examine the ice shelf for its potential to be habitable to humans. 

Researchers focus on bot design 

“We didn’t worry about how our tunnel bot would make it to Europa or get deployed into the ice,” Dombard said. “We just assumed it could get there and we focused on how it would work during descent to the ocean.” 

The tunneling bot would collect samples as it penetrated the ice as well as when it reached the liquid underneath.

The concept proposes two different way to power it, one design would be powered by a small nuclear reactor, and the other powered by General Purpose Heat Source bricks. 

Nuclear Powered Drilling Bot to Look for Life on Europa
Source: UIC

NASA uses external partnerships to develop concepts for tricky challenges


The bricks are a radioactive heat source modules designed for space missions. The heat from either source would be used to melt the ice. 

The bot would send communications via a string of “repeaters” connected to the bot by fiber optic cables.

The waters underneath Europa’s ice crust are one of the most likely places for space scientists to find evidence of life.

NASA uses external partnerships with researchers in labs across the U.S to test out possible solutions to ongoing challenges in space exploration. It’s not determined if the development of the concept will continue.

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