Searching for life in Europa’s ocean – with a tiny submarine

Artist's conception of DADU exploring ice-covered waters. Credit: Jonas Jonsson / Angstrom Space Technology Centre of Uppsala University
Artist’s conception of DADU exploring ice-covered waters.
Credit: Jonas Jonsson / Angstrom Space Technology Centre of Uppsala University

For decades, Jupiter’s moon Europa has been the focus of fascination and debate. Why? Because it has a global ocean – a deep, salty ocean similar to those on Earth, except that in Europa’s case it is always covered by a crust of ice. Speculation has grown that there could be life of some kind in that alien watery darkness, and now there is a new proposal for how to look for it – a tiny submarine!

The miniature submersible, tentatively named Deeper Access, Deeper Understanding (DADU), would be small, not much bigger than two soda cans, but it could be just what is needed to explore this waterworld.

The idea is a collaboration between scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California and Uppsala University in Sweden.

“What I think is exciting with this is to be able to explore previously inaccessible areas, to explore where no ‘man’ has explored before,” said Jonas Jonsson, an engineer at NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

The mission would have the advantage of lower costs as well as being able to access the underground ocean using only a small borehole through the ice. It would be similar to studies being done at Lake Vostok in Antarctica, where the lake waters are also covered by ice kilometres thick.

The submersible would use eight thrusters to maneuver and be attached to a surface lander by a fiber optic tether. It could take high-resolution photos and video and use sonar, as well as of course analyzing the water for any possible microbes.

Such a mission would not be easy, but is certainly doable. As Jonsson states, “I don’t think there are any particular technological breakthroughs required. There exist possible solutions for the technological barriers; however, further developments and optimizations are required for such a mission to succeed.”

It will be some time before this or something similar could happen; in the meantime, the European Space Agency hopes to launch the JUpiter ICy moons Explorer mission (JUICE) to measure the thickness of Europa’s icy crust starting in 2030. NASA’s proposed Europa Clipper mission would study the moon in detail during a series of flybys. But if we can actually swim around in this otherworldly ocean after that, then let’s do it!

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