Europa and Endurance

We’re a long way from putting a vehicle on Jupiter’s moon Europa and even further from putting a vehicle there capable of drilling through what might be a miles thick icy crust to what might be an ocean underneith. Pity. It’s a high priority item for scientists. For NASA and the government, not so much.

To be sure, that’s not unreasonable. From the taxpayers point of view, there’s a chance that there’s a chance that maybe there’s something there worth looking for. Like life. But that’s only if we can make something that’s capable of finding it. From the scientist’s point of view, this possibility is beyond historic. The technology is within reach and the possible pay-off is hugh.

The nagging question is still, how can you get to that ocean, below maybe miles of ice? There’s no answer yet, but U. of Chicago researchers are getting closer to having an exploration vehicle that can return data once it gets to that ocean.

The Environmentally Non-Disturbing Under-ice Robotic Antarctic Explorer, also known as Endurance, will swim untethered under ice, and collect data to create three-dimensional maps of underwater environments. The probe also will look at the conditions in those environments and take samples of microbial life. Later this year, researchers plan to ship the probe to a permanently frozen lake in Antarctica for more operations. The probe is a follow-up to the Deep Phreatic Thermal Explorer, a NASA-funded project that completed a series of underwater field tests in Mexico in 2007.“We’re using extreme environments on Earth as our laboratory,” says Peter Doran, associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Ice-covered lakes … are good, small-scale analogs to what we might find on Europa.”

Mendota Lake is only 25 meters deep, while the lake in Antarctica, West Lake Bonney is 40 meters deep. Scientists believe that Europa’s ocean could be up to 100 kilometers deep.

That’s one, small step.

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