This Submersible Is Designed to Explore an Alien Sea

EurEx offers a new approach to exploring the solar system’s most tantalizing moon.

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Aug 21 2016, 7:00pm

Europa-Explorer: Mission Scenario. Image: DFKI Video/YouTube

With its protective ice shell and voluminous ocean, Jupiter's moon Europa is widely considered to be the most promising place in the solar system to search for alien life. Though smaller than the Moon in diameter, this tantalizing world contains more liquid water than Earth, and tidal heating may warm its vast saltwater expanse to temperatures conducive to biological productivity.

Obviously, it's passed time that we chucked some robotic submersibles over to chart this moon's dark, ice-covered seas, and to strike up an acquaintance with any beings that might inhabit its depths. Alas, while many Europa-bound missions have been hatched, few mature beyond the concept phase.

But now, four years of investment and research into the EurEx (Europa Explorer) project, developed by the Bremen Robotics Innovation Center in Germany, has culminated in both a detailed mission profile as well as a working prototype ice shuttle and submersible.

This newly released animation lays out the key steps in the process, from touching down on Europa's fractured surface to sinking down to its mysterious ocean floor, estimated to be about 100 kilometers (62 miles) deep. For reference, the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of Earth's ocean, lies a comparatively shallow seven miles under the surface.

As outlined in the video, the basic plan is to use an "IceShuttle" as a thermal tunneling device that melts a narrow passage through the moon's icy crust. Once it pushes through up to 15 kilometer of ice to the ocean below, the shuttle deploys a swarm of minnow-like "microgliders."

These small robots disperse into the water, anchor themselves to overhanging ice, and begin transmitting acoustic signals to orient the autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) Leng, a narrow, barracuda-shaped submersible.

Once this subsurface base camp is established, the AUV Leng sinks to the bottom of Europa's ocean to record what it sees there, before returning to the shuttle to share its findings, and recharge its batteries. Here's some footage of the prototype testing out some of its moves in a saltwater basin at the Robotics Innovation Center.

Though it will still be years or even decades before a submersible like the AUV Leng will make it to Europa, it's still exciting to watch some of the early kinks in such an ambitious and challenging mission being ironed out. So don't fret, potential lifeforms of Europa, because we Earthlings are coming over to say hi. Maybe not today and maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and possibly with a groovy little submersible in tow. Get hype.