Robofish - To Europa!
What would be the perfect craft to explore the depths of Europa's oceans, which are buried under up to ten kilometers of ice? According to Cornell University's Steve Squyres:
"This is one of the hardest missions you can imagine," Squyres said. "You need a power system that will enable you to get onto the surface. You then have to some way find your way down through what might be 10 kilometers of ice. And then you have to release some kind of free-swimming vehicle that is able to go down to the bottom of that ocean and find out what's down there."
Answer: robofish! Robotic vehicles that can swim down to the bottom and explore the features that planetary geologists believe are there.
(Diagram of Europa)
Here on Earth, all life needs to gain a foothold is liquid water and an energy source. Europa likely boasts both, with hydrothermal vents gushing from the seafloor as they do on our planet, researchers say. And Earth's deep-sea vent systems host vibrant ecosystems.
"You do the calculations for Europa, and what you find is that there ought to be hydrothermal activity; there ought to be volcanic activity at Europa's seafloor," said Squyres, who recently chaired the U.S. National Research Council's Planetary Science Decadal Survey, which lays out the scientific community's goals for planetary science over the next 10 years.
Science fiction fans have been ready for this for a decade; sf author Michael Swanwick described the Mitsubish robot turbot robofish:
Black liquid flashed past the turbotís infrared eyes. Straight away from the shore it swam, seeing nothing but flecks of paraffin, ice, and other suspended particulates as they loomed up before it and were swept away in the violence of its wake. A hundred meters out, it bounced a pulse of radar off the sea floor, then dove, seeking the depths...
Unfortunately, the Jupiter Europa Orbiter mission is unlikely to be approved; at 4.7 billion dollars, its a bit too rich for NASA's $1.2 billion planetary science budget.
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