Scientists Believe A Special ‘Tunnelbot’ Could Help Scout For Hidden Life On Jupiter’s Moon, Europa

Scientists working on the NASA Glenn Research COMPASS team believe that a nuclear-powered tunnelbot would be an excellent way to search for microbial life and liquid water beneath Europa's vast sheets of ice.

jupiter and moon europa " Elements of this image furnished by NASA."
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Scientists working on the NASA Glenn Research COMPASS team believe that a nuclear-powered tunnelbot would be an excellent way to search for microbial life and liquid water beneath Europa's vast sheets of ice.

Many scientists believe that a liquid ocean may be lurking deep beneath the ice on Jupiter’s moon, Europa, and with it microbial life, and researchers have recently come up with the clever idea of creating a special nuclear-powered “tunnelbot” to address the situation and scout for life that may be hidden on this moon.

As Phys.org report, NASA’s Galileo flew by Europa many times between the years 1995 and 2003 and observations during this time have shown that there is a very good chance that life could exist beneath the icy sheets of Europa. And while researchers are all in agreement that under the ice is where we should be looking, the realities behind how to actually achieve this so that scientists can collect samples has been the subject of much debate.

Andrew Dombard, who is an associate professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, explained that the sheer thickness of ice on Europa is the biggest challenge for scientists right now in exploring this moon of Jupiter.

“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.”

Dombard and fellow researchers recently proposed a solution to the problem of exploration on Europa when they attended an American Geophysical Union meeting and suggested that using a nuclear-powered tunnelbot could open up whole new worlds of exploration. Andrew and wife D’Arcy Meyer-Dombard, who is an associate professor of earth and environmental sciences at UIC, work together as part of the NASA Glenn Research COMPASS team, which has a solid crew of both scientists and engineers whose job it is to come up with unique ideas and technology for scientific missions in space.

Without addressing how their tunnelbot would make it to Europa, Andrew Dombard stated that the NASA team conducted a concept study to show that this approach to searching for life on Jupiter’s moon could really work.

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

The tunnelbot would work by extracting ice, and would also thoroughly analyze the ice to search for microbial biofilms that could be hidden there. Crucially, this tunnelbot would also have the capability of working with liquid water beneath the ice.

Whether NASA approves the idea for the tunnelbot and allows it to venture beyond a concept study is unknown, but so far, this method of searching for life and liquid water on Europa appears to be an extremely viable idea for the exploration of Jupiter’s moon.