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Searching For Ocean Life On Another World

Soulskill posted about 4 months ago | from the hint:-it's-not-mars dept.

Space 49

An anonymous reader writes: National Geographic has a detailed article about efforts underway to search for life in the oceans of Europa, which are buried beneath miles of ice. A first mission would have a spacecraft orbit just 16 miles over the moon's surface, analyzing the material ejected from the moon, measuring salinity, and sniffing out its chemical makeup. A later mission would then deploy a rover. But unlike the rovers we've built so far, this one would be designed to go underwater and navigate using the bottom surface of the ice over the oceans. An early design was just tested successfully underneath the ice in Alaska. "[It] crawls along under a foot of ice, its built-in buoyancy keeping it firmly pressed against the frozen subsurface, sensors measuring the temperature, salinity, pH, and other characteristics of the water."

Astronomers and astrobiologists are hopeful that these missions will provide definitive evidence of life on other worlds. "Europa certainly seems to have the basic ingredients for life. Liquid water is abundant, and the ocean floor may also have hydrothermal vents, similar to Earth's, that could provide nutrients for any life that might exist there. Up at the surface, comets periodically crash into Europa, depositing organic chemicals that might also serve as the building blocks of life. Particles from Jupiter's radiation belts split apart the hydrogen and oxygen that makes up the ice, forming a whole suite of molecules that living organisms could use to metabolize chemical nutrients from the vents."

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Obligatory (3, Interesting)

stewsters (1406737) | about 4 months ago | (#47308611)

Attempt no landing there.

But seriously, cool stuff.

How do they plan to send communications back to earth from under the ice? I assume they will have a rover on the surface that will communicate with the diver and possibly a satellite, that will communicate with us.

Re:Obligatory (3, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47308729)

I was wondering the same thing (about communications). Depending on how many miles of ice we're talking about would determine if any form of tethered array could be used (i.e. - "diver" drills / melts into ice for 1 or 2 miles, leaving along a cord which is connected to an uplink sat system which communicates to whatever it floating in orbit, etc.) Not sure what kind of materials we have that could ensure that the cord wouldn't break but I would think that even 2 miles worth of cord would be an awful lot to lug around for something that would have to be very energy efficient...

Otherwise, maybe as the system goes deeper and deeper, it could leave behind repeaters every N distance and communicate back to the uplink system via an array of these repeaters...?

Very interesting stuff (I wish I knew more about it!).

Re:Obligatory (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47309105)

If it's a few miles, you could communicate by sonar. One part of the device goes under the ice and vibrates while the other sits on top and listens.

The bandwidth would probably be awful but at least you could get a few bits through.

Re:Obligatory (1)

Rei (128717) | about 4 months ago | (#47311407)

The predominant theory at present is that it's somewhere in the ballpark of 20km. Some argue for only a few kilometers, but that's a minority view. And it's even worse when you're at the bottom, the sea is expected to be about 100km deep.

How do you communicate through 20km of ice plus up to 100km of water?The total absorption in question here is just massive. Earthquake-strength sonar? ELF waves with a dozens-of-kilometers-long antenna? Cycling your nuclear reactor on and off and having a super-sensitive neutrino detector on the surface? Whatever method you use, your bandwidth will be ridiculously small - maybe 1 bit per second, give or take a couple orders of magnitude.

I really think any practical approach will require having either a cable or series of repeaters along the entry hole, and requiring the submersible to return to the entry hole to transmit data back up to the surface.

Re:Obligatory (1)

qwak23 (1862090) | about 4 months ago | (#47312327)

100km of water is nothing for SONAR, especially since Europa probably lacks a lot of noise pollution sources that exist in earths oceans. Getting equipment and a power source capable of putting out enough dB would be difficult though. Also, that 20km of Ice would likely act as a mirror and just reflect any transmissions back downward. ELF SONAR as you mentioned might actually get through the ice, but probably with a large loss in signal strength.

Though putting a receiver below the ice and a transmitter deeper in the water, with a cable running up from the receiver may be feasible. You may be able to get away with relatively low dB levels for your transmitter that way. Really depends on the properties of the water body itself and ambient noise level.

Re:Obligatory (1)

mbone (558574) | about 4 months ago | (#47309191)

Stone Aerospace has some elaborate plans [csmonitor.com] :

"When we speak of the Europa mission at our shop we are talking about going for the gold ring: landing on the surface of Europa; sending a nuclear-powered cryobot carrier vehicle through the ice crust; discharging a nuclear-powered 'fast mover' autonomous underwater carrier vehicle that has planet-scale range, and selectively launching a series of miniaturized, highly intelligent AUVs [Autonomous Underwater Vehicles] to go into the more dangerous areas (e.g. around black smokers, up into ice cracks, into corrosive chemical plumes) to search for and collect biological samples and bring them back to the mother ship,"

but I don't know anything about their comms plans. A german group plans to have a submersible return to the surface [usra.edu] and then broadcast everything back.

I would strongly prefer to have a transmitter on the surface (sending either back to Earth, or to an orbiter somewhere), and use acoustic signaling, just as you would do with a deep submersible here on Earth. Problems with the "go back to the hole" plan include

- a failure on the return trip means no data comes back at all
- a good fraction of the under-ice mission time would be spent going back to the hole, or making a new one, rather than further exploration.
- if the submersible gets into trouble, or has to make a decision as to what would be best to sample/explore/go to next, Earth cannot help.

Of course, we know nothing of the acoustic noise level in Europa, so this might require a precursor seismology mission just make sure it would work.

Re:Obligatory (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47309453)

wouldn't ELF radio help with at least providing some bandwidth? the sub could work its way back to the hole, upload the data not practical by ELF to the lander, and continue on it's merry way.

Re: Obligatory (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47309963)

Just like the Germans to send a U-Boot to another world in order to rule Europa. Lebt das Reich! Sieg HEIL!

Re:Obligatory (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47313117)

"Europa certainly seems to have the basic ingredients for life"

... while America has not.

Contamination (1)

robstout (2873439) | about 4 months ago | (#47308739)

I wonder what they are doing to guard against contamination from Earth bugs. IIRC, the Mars rovers showed up as dirty.

Re:Contamination (1)

Spy Handler (822350) | about 4 months ago | (#47308757)

earth bugs would die from the intense radiation around Jupiter.

Re:Contamination (5, Informative)

fishybell (516991) | about 4 months ago | (#47308829)

earth bugs would die from the intense radiation around Jupiter.

Oh, really? [wikipedia.org]

Re:Contamination (2)

mbone (558574) | about 4 months ago | (#47309009)

That's not what NASA Planetary Protection thinks and, at least for US space probes, that's what counts.

Re:Contamination (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47308913)

They will do as they've done before, which is the best we can do - try to sanitize the machinery and let the rigors of extraterrestrial space kill off as much as possible after launch. There isn't any more than that that can be done. Life is imperfect.

Re:Contamination (1)

meerling (1487879) | about 4 months ago | (#47308949)

"Life is imperfect."
Yet extraordinarily tenacious and perverse.

Re:Contamination (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47309525)

but enough about your mom.

Re:Contamination (4, Interesting)

mbone (558574) | about 4 months ago | (#47309003)

I wonder what they are doing to guard against contamination from Earth bugs. IIRC, the Mars rovers showed up as dirty.

Lots. Europa is in the elite Category III / IV of planetary protection [nasa.gov] , along with Mars and Enceladus,

“where there is a significant chance that contamination carried by a spacecraft could jeopardize future exploration.” We define “significant chance” as “the presence of niches (places where terrestrial microorganisms could proliferate) and the likelihood of transfer to those places."

The Europa probe is likely to get a little less scrubbing, significantly less than an Europan orbiter, but more than the Juno spacecraft [nasa.gov] , as, although it will be in a Jovian orbit going near Europa, it can be placed in a "safe" orbit away from Europa at the end of the mission. But, Europa orbiters and landers will get the full treatment.

By the way, even if Mars landers had some bugs, they were sterilized, which undoubtedly greatly reduced the total bio-loading, Just because you didn't wash your hands once before dinner doesn't mean you should stop washing them altogether subsequently.

Re:Contamination (1)

mbone (558574) | about 4 months ago | (#47309217)

"The Europa probe is likely ..."

That should be

"The Europa clipper probe is likely ..."

NASA is still ran by Nazi's (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47308799)

And they will never enlighten humanity that we co-exist with other life forms not just in this solar system but all over the universe.

Re:NASA is still ran by Nazi's (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47308953)

We don't need to co-exist, we just need to find more aquatic life that the Japanese can fish to extinction.

Doesn't anybody read their Bible anymore? (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47308833)

This search for life outside Earth is insane. It is a waste of time and resources that could better be spent elsewhere. Are we going to start the search for Santa too?

Re:Doesn't anybody read their Bible anymore? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47309659)

Maybe you guys should start modifying your story to future-proof it a bit. It's fiction after all, so it shouldn't be a problem to retcon it. Here's a suggestion:

"God is somewhere out in the universe lobbing comets all over the place. They are infused with 'seeds' (bacteria, etc) that will 'grow' (metamorphosize like a tadpole into a frog, but over tr/b/millions... pardon me, 6000... pardon me, 7 days -- rather than evolve, never evolve! *pandering winkie face*) into beings in his image."

Use whatever delivery device you want to shoehorn that into your existing narrative. Another burning bush. Some idiot staring into a hat reading super secret stone tablets that he can't let anyone else see. Maybe go all sci-fi and say aliens... I mean "space humans" came and told you. Be creative. Really sell that shit. Convince the masses. You people are good at that.

Captcha was "altered". It must be a sign.

Re:Doesn't anybody read their Bible anymore? (1)

Immerman (2627577) | about 4 months ago | (#47311063)

I was not aware that the bible had anything whatsoever to say about life elsewhere in the universe - in fact I seem to recall that it has nothing much to say about anything else in the universe even existing. Almost as though it was written for (or by) humans who had no knowledge of, or use for, anything not directly related to their home planet.

Europa Clipper (2)

mbone (558574) | about 4 months ago | (#47308889)

A first mission would have a spacecraft orbit just 16 miles over the moon's surface, analyzing the material ejected from the moon, measuring salinity, and sniffing out its chemical makeup.

Actually, the first mission dedicated to Europa will be the Europa clipper [nasa.gov] , focused on Europa, but not in Europa orbit. The radiation near Europa is so intense (even for machines) that dipping in and out of the field in an inclined Jovian orbit will save about a billion dollars over going into a Europan orbit.

subject (1)

Charliemopps (1157495) | about 4 months ago | (#47308951)

ok, so if we're pretty sure there's no "intelligent" life capable of nuking us...

How about we just send a reactor there... land it on the ice, and let it do its thing until it melts its way through? Is it possible to have a controlled reaction long enough to get through the ice... the spread the fissile material out in some way and have it seal itself tight for the next 10k years?

Once through, the reactor should provide plenty of power to get a signal through the ice I would think. Also, the radiation from Jupiter would make anything from the reactor trivial. Of greater concern are the heavy metals it would decay to... But I'd hope we could think of a way to seal it. The biggest concern is: We have no idea what it's like down there. What if its under insane amounts of pressure, as we start melting our way through a geiser just blows our probe back into orbit?

Water ice floats (1)

Primate Pete (2773471) | about 4 months ago | (#47309197)

...making a hole won't create a geyser, no matter how deep the water is.

Re:Water ice floats (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47310041)

But, but.... IT'S IN SPACE.

Re:subject (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47309473)

I'm still waiting for the discovery of "intelligent" life on this planet.

Re:subject (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47309691)

It already exists, but the strong AI is smart enough not to let the media broadcast its existence, and already has the world leaders well under its control.

Re:subject (1)

Triklyn (2455072) | about 4 months ago | (#47314633)

terrible joke, and you're a terrible person for saying it. Die in a fire.

They're gonna wake... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47308981)

...the frost giants ermagherd!

But seriously this is pretty cool stuff. I'm going to assume they have an understanding of what the inside surface of the ice is like as far as navigating, I would think that convection currents in the water would carry any heat in the core outwards in irregular patterns resulting in an uneven surface for "driving" on. Would be interesting to see the results of such an experiment.

Wrong! The Clipper will not orbit Europa (1)

Squidlips (1206004) | about 4 months ago | (#47309005)

The Europa Clipper will orbit Jupiter, periodically dipping in close to Europa's surface. This is will minimize the probes exposure to radiation. This is an important point that was missed.

Sample the plumes; don't drill (1)

Squidlips (1206004) | about 4 months ago | (#47309027)

It with be infinitely easier to sample the plumes than try to drill through that rock-hard ice. Look what it took to get the Curiosity rover to drill 2.5 inches into rocks on Mars.

Punching through ice isn't drilling. (1)

TiggertheMad (556308) | about 4 months ago | (#47309467)

It is incredibly simple to drill through the ice. Bring a long a one pound sphere of depleted uranium. Before you start breaking for obit, release the sphere on an impact trajectory. Without a thick atmosphere to ablate it, I feel fairly confident in saying that the crater will be fairly deep. Repeat as needed. If you want real precision, I'm sure you can get the military to give you one of the cheap laser guidance packs they slap on dumb munitions. Rememeber that the goal here is to get through the ice, not examine the geology, so I think your comparison isn't quite appropriate.

Re:Sample the plumes; don't drill (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47309479)

It with be infinitely easier to sample the plumes than try to drill through that rock-hard ice. Look what it took to get the Curiosity rover to drill 2.5 inches into rocks on Mars.

It is certainly cheaper even if ice is certainly not rock hard.

Watch Europa Report first... (1)

Sox2 (785958) | about 4 months ago | (#47309091)

will provide tips on what not to do...
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt20... [imdb.com]

Re:Watch Europa Report first... (1)

RailGunner (554645) | about 4 months ago | (#47309207)

You know, that's a very underrated movie. Watched it on Netflix, an analogy would be that move is like a really good, long episode of Star Trek.

Re:Watch Europa Report first... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47311597)

probably the best indie space themed movie ever. And it is extremely intriguing. Infact, when I first read this headline on Slashdot, that movie immediately came to mind.

Guise for Arctic drilling (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47309213)

The oceans simply do not contain enough organic chemicals for life. At the very least, it is the interaction of C, H, O, and N that makes life possible. Seems to me they are just trying to develop technology for Arctic drilling under the guise of going to Europa to find life.

Re:Guise for Arctic drilling (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47309327)

What makes you think they are not driven by scientific curiosity? Does it always have to be about money?

Re:Guise for Arctic drilling (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47309673)

Does it always have to be about money?

Yes.

Europa, the next big challenge (2)

k6mfw (1182893) | about 4 months ago | (#47309481)

Yes, it is further away, intense radiation (except under the ice), more difficult but then Mars used to be like that (in some ways still is). But rather sending another rover to Mars with more evidence of water used to be there, bla-bla, etc. Cynthia Phillips of SETI said, "when looking for life, go where the water is." And there is lots more water there than on Mars but we don't know much of what is under all that ice. Mars has interesting geological features (forget sending people there, it's a bridge too far and we can't even send people to the moon). But just imagine a submarine taking pictures and video of the little fishies in the Europa oceans. Don't know if there is any there but that first mission under the ice will be very interesting.

Slush (1)

Kevin Fishburne (1296859) | about 4 months ago | (#47309531)

I wonder if the ice/water transition may be miles of slush, rather than being clearly defined. If so the design in TFA isn't going to work as there will be no ceiling to use as a reference. They'll need to use temperature, sonar, or pressure readings to determine its elevation/depth, all of which will be unknown without sending something else down there first.

Re:Slush (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47310499)

Well, think of how water freezes on a cold lake. There's a sharp divide because water isn't still. Heat being generated at the core of the moon would ensure warmer fluid would move towards the ice barrier, and colder fluid would move towards the core. This cycle tends to keep 'slush' from forming.

Re:Slush (1)

Kevin Fishburne (1296859) | about 3 months ago | (#47317733)

Well, think of how water freezes on a cold lake. There's a sharp divide because water isn't still. Heat being generated at the core of the moon would ensure warmer fluid would move towards the ice barrier, and colder fluid would move towards the core. This cycle tends to keep 'slush' from forming.

Interesting...didn't think about that. I suppose what got me thinking of the slush idea was the sheer scale of the environment compared to ours here; the entire moon is frozen. Here's some info on theories about Europa's oceans: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E... [wikipedia.org]

And possibly evidence of slush, depending on how you interpret the word "ductile":

...it is predicted that the outer crust of solid ice is approximately 10–30 km (6–19 mi) thick, including a ductile "warm ice" layer...

Guess there's only one way to find out. I personally can't wait!

Re:Slush (1)

Intrepid imaginaut (1970940) | about 4 months ago | (#47316857)

Indeed, and I'm unclear as to why you'd want to crawl along the underside of the ice in any case when you can just... swim.

Electric Universe Predicts No Ocean (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47309911)

Just to be clear, there will be no evidence for an ocean that emerges from this mission to Europa, and the thunderbolts.info group has been predicting this for a number of years now. The channels are not cracks in ice revealing some subsurface ocean. They are electrically-machined grooves.

I encourage anybody who feels the need to ridicule the EU to do it now, so that we can come back when the attempt to identify this ocean has failed, and do a reality check on the state of knowledge within the planetary sciences at this particular moment, with the gift then of knowing the right answer. Please use this opportunity to tell the world how stupid the EU is for applying the electrical machining inference to Europa. Now is your chance.

From https://www.thunderbolts.info/wp/2012/11/01/europa-oceania-3/

"... Cracking” on Europa continues to be the official interpretation, although high resolution images contradict that assumption. The larger channels are smooth, with a constant channel width, sometimes for over a thousand kilometers ..."

From http://www.thunderbolts.info/tpod/2005/arch05/050311europarilles.htm

"... The picture on the right emphasizes the intimate connection between rilles and concentrations of craters. As powerful arcs tore across the surface, secondary filaments sputtered about erratically. They touched down on adjoining regions, sticking momentarily to one point after another, leaving pockmarks of generally constant size. They produced the same discoloration as seen along the rilles. A continuous arc can cut a remarkably smooth channel, as if a router were being dragged across the surface. But periodic sputtering of discharge filaments is evident in the larger picture above, where we see a concentration of pits, and not just in the general regions where the channels are most dense; some of the pits are centered along the channels themselves. This enigmatic relationship of cratering patterns to rille formation thus becomes a key to the electrical interpretation, with implications reaching far beyond Europa.

What, then, of the unique coloring of the excavated material? Wallace Thornhill has suggested that the reddish coloring may be due to sulfur produced by a transmutation of elements: The electric field strength in an interplanetary thunderbolt could fuse two oxygen nuclei together into a sulfur nucleus ..."

Don't look back on this and pretend that you knew how this mission was going to turn out, all along. Most of the people contributing to these threads have become complacent with the line of logic that leads to subsurface oceans. It's very clear that there is groupthink at play here.

It's very clear that there is (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47310751)

Moonbattery here.

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