NASA's nuclear powered 'tunnelbot' may search for life under Europa

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Representational Image
Representational Image

New Delhi : Spells nearly like Europe but actually it’s Europa where there are possibilities of alien life. Beneath Europa is the salty ocean which is influenced by the gravity on the moon's metal core. And the biggest question is how to explore the ice sheets? Well, NASA is working hard to hunt for life on Europa.

A proposal has been put to the American Geophysical Union meeting in Washington DC this week. The Glenn Research centre has multidisciplinary COMPASS team which was formed to develop technology to overcome the challenges of space exploration.

Scientists say that Europa is big one and the ice that covers this moon of Jupiter could be anywhere between 2 and 30km thick. And beneath the thick ice sheet, there could be life. Exploring life there would throw open our understanding of how common life is in our universe, how resilient it is, how it arises and so on.

However, planetary scientists aren't confirmed if Europa has an ocean. But the plumes of liquid-water which periodically erupt from its surface indicate that there is ocean. 

As of now, NASA's COMPASS team has completed a concept study on the technologies capable of piercing the ice with a suite of sensors and sending the data it collects back to Earth. And the best option is the nuclear-powered 'tunnelbot'. Nuclear power packs the most energy into a small space. 

And it doesn't even need to be built into a nuclear reactor, though that was one of the concept designs. In simple language, radioactive 'bricks' would simply radiate a heat source in front of a tube-shaped probe which then gradually sinks as the ice beneath turns to slush.

The power of such nuclear fuel cells have been adequately demonstrated by the likes of Voyager 1 and 2, still sending back signals as they cross into interstellar space some 40 years after they were launched.

The nuclear 'tunnelbot' would organize from a lander with a fibre-optic string of data 'repeaters' unfurling as it sinks. Any such a Europa 'tunnelbot' would be reasonably large. 

"We didn't worry about how our tunnelbot would make it to Europa or get deployed into the ice," says University of Illinois at Chicago associate professor Andrew Dombard. "We just assumed it could get there and we focused on how it would work during descent to the ocean."

Sending a probe to Europa is one of Nasa's major ambitions for the coming decades. But getting the mission past an increasingly sceptical US Congress may not be easy.

Let's see what happens!