Europa gets Drilled

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A laser-powered drill could be used to penetrate the thick layers of ice on Jupiter’s frozen moon Europa, allowing robot probes to explore the oceans beneath.

The problem scientists who hope to study the oceans beneath the crust of Europa have faced has always been the amount of energy needed to melt through the miles of ice.

Batteries would not last long enough, even a small nuclear reactor would be too big, and solar power would be absolutely useless so deep in the depths of the moon’s oceans.

But the VALKYRIE drill would leave its bulky power plant on the surface of the moon, with a high-powered laser shooting down a fibre-optic cable to run the device.

Once it had penetrated icy crust of Europa, it could then explore the oceans beneath collecting and analysing samples before melting its way back to the surface, sealing the hole behind it.

Inventor and explorer Bill Stone unveiled the design yesterday at Nasa’s Astrobiology Science Conference in Atlanta, Georgia.

He told Wired Science: ‘Our modest goal over the next three years is to use a 5,000-watt laser to send a cryobot through up to 250 meters of ice.’

‘All the data show there are no show-stoppers for doing that. But from my standpoint, this is child’s play compared to what we could do.’

Dr Stone’s team combined several simultaneous advances in different fields, where researchers weren’t necessarily aware of each others’ work.

Bart Hogan, an optics expert and principal engineer on the project, told Wired: ‘It’s like you have all these groups making lenses for better eyeglasses, and someone says, “Hey, we can put these lenses together and build a telescope,”‘

With a doctorate in structural engineering and 11 patents to his credit, Dr Stone has already designed a range of robot explorers, of which VALKYRIE is just the latest.

His first robot, DEPTHX, descended deep into flooded Mexican hydrothermal springs to to find and collect samples of previously unknown microbial species between 2003 and 2007.

The next, called ENDURANCE, did the same thing in a freshwater lake hidden beneath a permanent ice cap in Antarctica in 2008 and 2009, creating the first 3-D chemistry map of a sub-glacial lake.

It was while testing ENDURANCE in advance of the Antarctic mission that Dr Stone came up with the novel power solution for VALKYRIE.

ENDURANCE used a tiny fibre optic cable – thinner than a strand of human hair – to communicate with the team sitting at the surface.

Dr Stone was suddenly struck with the idea that a much bigger cable could carry immense amounts of energy in the form of photons.

Researching the possibilities, he found that while there had been huge developments in both industrial lasers and fibre optic cables, no one had tried to fire the former down the latter.

Most development in the technology of fibre optic cables had been in the field of telecommunications, which uses very low power, Dr Stone told Wired.

While big industrial lasers, which can be powerful enough to cut a car in half, were usually only used in sealed units, with safety as the overriding concern, he added.

However, whether the new concept works or not, it is unlikely to make a mission to Europa anytime soon.

Nasa still have no clear, high-resolution pictures of what the surface of the moon is like and whether or not it is possible to land a spacecraft on there.

Mr Stone’s team has already built and tested the laser-fibre-optic power system at his laboratory in Texas.

They now plan to test a prototype of VALKYRIE at the Matanuska Glacier, Alaska, in June 2013.

Attribution: Wired Science, Mail Online

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