The "tunnelbot" can drill through Europa's thick ice cover, providing researchers the opportunity to go deep inside its surface and check for hidden life or aliens.
Europa is Jupiter 53rdmoon and also its fourth largest. According to researchers, the thick icy cover may hide an ocean underneath its surface and the vents in the crust provide the necessary heat to foster life. Therefore, Europa is one of the best prospects to look for life in the solar system, scientists at NASA believe.
How Tunnelbot Works
The scholars working with the NASA Glenn Research COMPASS team are a group of engineers and scientists who proposed "tunnelbot" on Dec. 14 at the meeting of American Geophysical Union as a solution to NASA's requirement of a nuclear-powered machine that can carry payload capable of searching for life and any evidence of it.
"We have performed a concept study for a nuclear powered tunneling probe (a tunnelbot) that can traverse through the ice shell and reach the ocean, carrying a payload that can search for nested, corroborative evidence for extant/extinct life," the researchers wrote in their proposal. "The tunnelbot would also assess the habitability of the ice shell and underlying ocean."
This contraption, dubbed as the "tunnelbot" will either use a nuclear reactor or heat bricks technology to generate heat and melt through Europa's icy shell.
"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, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Once tunnelbot reaches the ice-covered moon, it will not only slice through its icy crust but also look for small lakes inside the shell or signs that the ice itself is supporting life. Long fiber-optic cable will be deployed as it sets deeper, providing communication relays up to 9 miles.
Easier Said Than Done
"How initial deployment on the surface would occur was not addressed and remains a challenge for future work," researchers noted in their proposal.
At this point, the tunnelbot is only a theoretical proposition. The researchers are yet to design the payload and figure out a way to get it to the moon. A lot of design challenges would have to be tackled before the drilling robot can come to fruition.