Objective Europa on the drawing board, courtesy of founder Kristian von Bengtson
Like so many great leaps for mankind, getting a human to one of Jupiter’s moons must begin with a small step. And Objective Europa is aiming to do exactly that. A small team—architects, futurist designers, private space pioneers and even Jacques Cousteau's son, Pierre-Yves Cousteau—is beginning the planning stage to send human beings on a one-way trip to the Jovian moon Europa.
The effort is headed up by Kristian von Bengtson (pictured right), the founder of Copenhagen Suborbitals, an open source DIY space program based in his native Denmark. And he's quite serious about transporting a man or woman beyond our atmosphere, Mars and the asteroid belt.
Before they launch any spacecraft, they're launching a crowd-researching campaign. You can't apply to go farther—and inevitably to die farther away—than anyone ever has before quite yet. They're not leaving in the next decade, but maybe 30 years from now? Maybe 50? "If nobody start this research, you’re not going to go anywhere," said von Bengtson. "So hopefully that’s what this project can begin."
While it isn’t Jupiter’s biggest moon, lately Europa has been getting all of the attention. The NASA probes that flew through the Jovian system in the ‘70s revealed that ice-covered Europa is one of the smoothest objects in the galaxy. Despite being over five times farther from the Sun than the Earth, scientists speculate that beneath the icy surface of Europa, there might be liquid oceans, warmed by underwater volcanoes and friction from the pull of Jupiter’s gravity.
And where there's liquid water, there’s the possibility of finding life. This has NASA eager to launch a probe as soon as 2022 to check it out and also has Objective Europa eager to send people there.
“It’s the one body in the solar system that has the biggest potential for extraterrestrial life,” said von Bengtson. “It’s where you want to go.”
He explained, “You can’t go to Venus because there’s 93 bars of pressure and acid rain. Forget about it. Mars is just so last millennium. It’s just boring; it’s desert. So where else to go? The next step is Jupiter and there you’ve got this beautiful ice planet.”
Europa on the right, with fellow moon Io on the left and Jupiter in the background, taken by Voyager 1, via Wikimedia Commons.
Von Bengtson is a Danish “space-architect” and designer by education, who has worked with NASA and blogs for Wired. As we spoke, it became clear that the complexity of reaching and exploring Europa—that is, sending someone hundreds of millions of miles, landing on the icy surface, bursting through and exploring the watery world below—was part of the appeal.
When I asked him “Why Europa?” he talked about the possibility of life for a while before admitting “And also I just think it’d be cool. Landing on ice? Then you penetrate the crust? And turning your space capsule into a submersible? Isn’t that the coolest mission you could ever do?” From a design and engineering standpoint, it’s hard not to agree.
Von Bengtson’s initial estimates put the trip to Europa at just 600 days, making a visit much more practical—relatively speaking—than exoplanets that are light years away. NASA's Galileo probe took six years to get to Jupiter but probes go slowly, with energy efficiency and longevity in mind. With people on board, you’d want to go as fast as possible. For example the European Space Agency’s probe to our local Moon took a whole year, while the Apollo missions took three to five days.
Of course, NASA is an organization run by people just like von Bengtson, who relish achieving the unachievable and finding solutions to seemingly impossible problems. And the people I spoke to at NASA informed me that a manned mission to Europa had plenty of those.
Well actually, the response I got was, “A human mission to Europa?! You must be joking!!”
Fran Bagenal is a professor of astrophysical and planetary sciences at the University of Colorado. She worked for NASA on the Voyager and Galileo missions to Jupiter, as well as the Galileo probe and, most recently, is a “co-investigator” on NASA’s New Horizons mission, which sent a probe in 2006 to explore Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. In an email she laid out the difficulties that await Objective Europa:
A- Tough Location - Europa is deep in the gravitational well of Jupiter and it takes lots of fuel (=mass=$$$) or time (=$$) to get into orbit around Europa. Let alone land.
B - Radiation - the charged particles trapped in Jupiter's strong magnetic field just zap the heck out of electronics. So you have to add shielding (=mass=$$$).
Von Bengtson is well aware of the radiation. “One day of radiation on Europa will kill you,” he said. “That’s no secret, but you can handle that.” How? That's a question to be answered by “Phase I” of Objective Europa. Welcome to “crowd researching.”
Objective Europa’s website is going to have a forum of quandries and potential difficulties that the mission will face, which anyone around the world can take a crack at solving. Then, provided the solution isn't "a joke or hoax," the solution goes on the website where the crowd peer reviews it.
It seems impractical, if not impossible, but von Bengtson has his reasons to be optimistic: he already started a successful crowd-funded space program in “Copenhagen Suborbitals.” Motherboard produced a video on the space endeavor; you can watch them testing rockets made with off-the-shelf parts, to send people in suborbital flight, like America’s first forays into the great black beyond—essentially the crowd-funded space program is in its Mercury program.
“We were able to launch a space program based off the work of everyone else out there,” von Bengtson said. “A lot of ideas come in from people, and from reading the Wired blog. So I just figured maybe you could create a Phase I for this Europa mission. Instead of having a crowd-funded thing you could have it sort of crowd-researched project, with just a lot of cool people who work different topics and do sketches and drawings.”
von Bengtson hopes that when the website launches, the idea of a manned mission to Europa will capture the world’s imagination, like it has his. To him, it’s the only practical way to do something so impractical.
“The idea was not to be just three nerds meeting once in a while trying to pull this project off because that’s completely unrealistic,” he said. “The second option would a government-funded project with a big priority and that’s never going to happen. But I think it’s possible to do this if you just find everybody who finds this project appealing and interesting. That’s how you can do this, at least the research phase.”
So maybe the great brainpower of the people can design a rocket, a spaceship and a lander. It’s just the research phase after all. To NASA—whose woes funding another Jupiter probe are the perfect example of the shortcomings inherent in a big, government funded project—the idea of sending people to Europa is still the least practical part.
“What's the point of sending humans? What can they do that robots cannot do better?” Bagenal asked. “And robots do not need to breathe, eat, drink, excrete or come back. And robots have better bodies, eyes, hands, noses, ears—and brains.”
She’s an expert, and it's hard to disagree with her description of robots' spaceflight superiority. It just kind of stings to hear someone come right out and say it. Thus, it’s stirring to hear von Bengtson come to the defense of our frail, stupid species.
“Of course sending human beings is way more complex, but there’s a couple of points to that,” von Bengtson said. “One could be—you know the rovers Spirit and Opportunity on Mars? They’ve been there for, I think, seven years, and it’s estimated that have done the equivalent of about four weeks worth of human work. So there are limits to robots.”
Granted, Objective Europa is still in the stage where it doesn’t even know how much it doesn’t know, so it’s probably fair to imagine that NASA can design and build better robots while Objective Europa designs and builds an entire spaceship. But, maybe “exploration” means putting butts in seats, and putting eyeballs on things that no eyeball has seen, and—eventually—corpses where no corpses have ever been.
“Also it’s all about human exploration and going there,” von Bengtson said. “If you toss a rock into your neighbor’s garden; you didn’t go into your neighbor’s garden. It was only the rock. It’s kind of the same thing here. We need to go there as human beings, we need to be there and we to have the presence to say that we’ve been there.”
Preliminary doodles via Kristian von Bengtson
To get humankind to do the impossible, it seems like you have to have impossible expectations. “If I didn’t think it was feasible to do, I wouldn’t start the project,” von Bengtson said. “So I can’t believe that we don’t have the brainpower to come up with solutions to all the things.”
“There’s seven billion people on this world. You can easily get thousands doing this, I believe and I hope,” he said. “I would be really disappointed if humankind couldn’t come up with solutions for doing this. Within 100 years or 200 years people are going to send people to Europa anyway. I’m pretty sure that we can advance this project. Maybe cut 50 years off. Maybe make it feasible in, say, 30 years.”
As John F. Kennedy said in his famous “we choose to go to the moon” speech: “if this capsule history of our progress teaches us anything, it’s that man in his quest for knowledge and progress is determined and can not be deterred. The exploration of space will go ahead.”
Kennedy’s speech continues with stirring Cold War-nationalism in the name of enriching all of humanity, a thoroughly American moment, but one that resonates to a plan without borders.
Objective Europa is without national interest, a return trip, or funding. At this point it’s an optimistic and well-connected Danish man and his friends. He mentioned chatting with his friend Syd Mead, the futurist designer behind Tron and Blade Runner. The team is awaiting the input from the public.
“Basically this project—even if it turns out that it’s not feasible—is interesting,” von Bengtson said, citing all the new knowledge that a project on this scale could create. “Even if it turns out that you can’t do this, everybody is just going to be smarter on a lot of issues. You can’t really fail doing this, from my perspective, if you get this working.”
So there’s the blueprint: Crowd-research. Test, then send some intrepid soul on his or her way. All that’s left is figuring out what you say when you eclipse Neil Armstrong’s achievement. I asked von Bengtson what no-doubt immortal words he’d say as he stepped out—swam out?—onto the alien moon. He laughed, “I’d probably hire a scriptwriter.” Even under ideal conditions, not everything should be crowdsourced.
Correction: An earlier version of this article conflated Objective Europa's goal to crowd-research its program with crowd-funding. Von Bengtson wrote in a follow-up email that the goal is to crowd-research, not crowd-fund the program. The article has been updated to reflect the change. Motherboard regrets the error.