Scientists propose to build a nuclear drill to search for life on Jupiter’s moon

22.12.2018 - NASA, Space, Technology
Scientists propose to build a nuclear drill to search for life on Jupiter’s moon

Scientists from the University of Illinois have introduced the concept of atomic tunneling drill for the exploration of the world Europe – satellite of Jupiter. Covered with a thick layer of ice moon of a gas giant for a long time attracts scientists from around the world. Many researchers believe that under the ice cap of the satellite is hiding a huge ocean in which life could exist. Complexity is the study of Europe is in this ice surface, which is though to protect from cosmic radiation of deep peace, but at the same time creates an insurmountable barrier for researchers used to look at what’s really under there.

According to scientists, to break through the ice shell of Europe and explore its ice-world would help specialized probes, equipped with appropriate equipment and scientific instruments. One such scientist is Andrew Dombard of the University of Illinois. His group, working with NASA, presented at the last meeting of the American geophysical Union the concept of “tunnelbana” with a nuclear facility, which, in their opinion, could help to determine whether there is life on the moon of Jupiter.

“Every time I propose something new, you always ask the same question: are you sure you can do it? We think it’s possible,” Dombard says.

It should be noted that the concept was created taking into account the fact that at the time when the “tunnelrat” will be ready for their launch on Europe would be built or sent to an automatic station is designed for at least a three-year period of operation. Why this station – will be discussed below. But if you jump ahead, it should be said that NASA plans to this station yet.

At the moment the only known planned NASA mission to Europe is to send an orbital probe to the icy moon. Moreover, even if to take into account the previously announced concept lander Europa Lander, to help in this mission today, he can not. According to previously announced estimates, NASA hopes that the Europa Lander module in the best case will be able to work on the surface of Europa for three weeks.

Even if we ignore the question of the station, the design concept scientists had to consider and address many critical aspects. One of them, for example, is the task of collecting samples of solid ice while diving for further analysis.


“We wanted to be able to make the collection and analysis of solid ice immersion of the probe below the surface. It would be much easier to make the dive if, in ice layers contained melt-water, but in a more realistic presentation of the environment we most likely will not see it,” says Dombard.

Ideally, experts say, they would like to fully control the process of ice melting during the dive. In this case it would be possible to analyze the gases it can contain.

The projected angles of the descent tunnel probe through the thick ice crust of Europe

Another problem that limits the scope of creativity in the development of the concept of the probe were our generally meager knowledge about Europe. For example, nobody knows how thick actually is its ice crust. In other words, scientists currently do not know exactly what the power reserve should be at the tunnel bot. Maybe we are talking about 2 kilometers of ice, and maybe 30. During the development of the concept Dombard and his team took into account the estimated approximate value of 20 kilometers of the ice layer.

Scientists also thought about how to transfer the data collected on the Ground, which traditionally involves the use of radio waves. According to Dombard and his colleagues, this method may be ineffective because the thick layer of ice can weaken or even block the signal for transmission. To resolve the issue, scientists have developed a system of repeaters that are expected to come down along with the probe under the ice using fiber optic cable and placed at a distance of 5 kilometers from each other.

In the course of work on the concept of a research probe Dombard with the team considered two different design of the apparatus. In both cases we are talking not only about the descent, but a fair collection of scientific data.

Diagram of probe for the study of Europe fuel cell

In the first variant assumes the use of a probe with heat elements exposed to radioactive plutonium. This view is not only simpler design of the apparatus itself, but also its delivery to the satellite. At the same time, this approach has a drawback: the system ice melting will have low efficiency and produce less heat. In this case, the total area of the directed heat will be considerably less. In this scheme, the probe diameter should not exceed 25 centimeters, which in turn imposes a limit on the sizes of used scientific equipment to study the under-ice ocean.

“Trying to put the microwave in the tube seems quite a challenge. First and foremost, you need to change the design of most microwave ovens,” explains Dombard.

Diagram of probe for the study of Europe, operating on the basis of a nuclear reactor

The second embodiment of the apparatus involves the use of a nuclear reactor. It will help to solve the described above difficulties, but at the same time will have its shortcomings. For example, operating on the basis of the reactor apparatus will be able to generate significantly more heat (making the probe wider), but at the same time, there are difficulties protect reactor fuel from impacts of external cosmic radiation. Dombard with colleagues to offer protection and cooling equipment the use of melt water, which will in the course of movement of the probe to be pumped into a special chamber with a length of about 5 meters.

All this, of course, is only an outline. Perhaps the most important question to be addressed is the issue of actual financing of the project. Such a mission could cost NASA many billions of dollars. While there is no money.

How real do you think the project is a atomic drill to study the ice-world of Europe?

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