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The icy shell encasing Jupiter's moon Europa is both a promise and a problem: It increases the plausibility of life floating through the ocean that scientists think hides below it by blocking damaging radiation, but it also blocks scientists from getting a good look at what's going on under the ice.
That's why scientists have begun to dream up specialized probes that would carry instruments below the ice. Andrew Dombard, a geophysicist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is one of those scientists, and he presented two possible designs for a "tunnelbot" at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union last week.
Team - Work - Assumption - Time - Tunnelbot
The team premised their work on the assumption that by the time the tunnelbot was ready for its journey, there would be some sort of station set up on Europa's surface that could survive for the three years or so the tunnelbot would take to burrow through the icy shell. That's a big requirement: NASA's next planned mission to the moon will only orbit Europa, and even if the much-discussed Europa Lander mission concept becomes a reality, the lander would last just three weeks.
But there were plenty of constraints to take into account in the design process. One such constraint was developing a probe that would collect solid ice samples for scientists to analyze. "In order to do this right, we need to get solid ice samples as we're going through the ice shell, and of course we're melting on the way down," Dombard said. "It would be a lot easier to bring in some of the meltwater, but from the scientific standpoint that is certainly not preferred." Instead, scientists would want to be able to melt the ice in a carefully controlled environment where they could measure the gases that were trapped inside it.
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