A Proposal: An Ice-Tunneling Lander to Explore Extraterrestrial Sub-Surface Oceans

We have found compelling evidence for the existence of several sub-surface oceans in various places in our solar system. The most well-known of these bodies of liquid water is under the ice crust of Europa, a moon of Jupiter, with others located elsewhere. These oceans are logical places to look for signs of past or present extraterrestrial life. However, we have yet to obtain a sample of any of these oceans for analysis. It is time for that to change, but not without taking precautions to avoid damaging any such life, should it exist.

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Europa (source: NASA)

What follows is my idea, freely available for anyone who wishes to use it, to safely obtain and analyze such samples. These ice-tunneling probes could be ejected from a larger lander, or simply dropped directly onto the surface from orbit. This would be far less expensive than any sort of manned interplanetary exploration. Exposure to vacuum and radiation, in space, would thoroughly sterilize the entire apparatus before it even lands, protecting anything which might be alive in the ocean underneath from contamination by organisms from Earth.

Tunneling LASSO Probe (Lander for Analysis of Sub-Surface Oceans)

In this cross-sectional diagram, the light blue area represents the ice crust of Europa, or another solar-system body like that moon. The ice-tunneling lander is shown in red, orange, black, yellow, and green. The dark blue area is the vertical tunnel created by the probe, shown shortly after tunneling begins. As the probe descends, the dome shown in gray caps the tunnel, and stays on the surface, having been previously stored, folded up, in the green section of the egg-shaped probe. The gray section is designed as a geodesic dome, with holes of adjustable size to allow heat to escape into space. An extendable, data-carrying tether connects the egg-shaped tunneling module to the surface dome. Solar-energy panels and radio transmitters and receivers stay at the surface, attached to the gray dome.  

The computers necessary to operate the entire probe are in the yellow section. The black section that extends outward, slightly, from the body of the tunneler would contain mechanisms to obtain samples of water for analysis. The orange section is where actual samples are stored and analyzed.

The red part of the tunneler is weighted, so that gravity forces it to stay at the bottom. It is designed to heat up enough to melt the ice underneath it, allowing the entire “egg” to descend, attached to its tether. Water above the tunneling probe re-freezes, sealing the tunnel so that potentially-damaging holes are not left in the ice crust of Europa. The heating units in the red section can be turned on and off as needed, to slow, hasten, or stop the probe’s descent through the crust.

Oceans in other places in the solar system might require certain adjustments to this design. For example, Ganymede, another moon of Jupiter, is far rockier than Europa. If this design were used on Ganymede, the tunneling probe would likely be stopped by sub-surface rocks. For this type of crust, the probe’s design could be modified to allow lateral movement of the tunneler, in order to go around rocks.

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Ganymede (source: NASA)

On Europa, Ganymede, and elsewhere, one limitation of this design is imposed by the maximum length of the tether. We would not want to go all the way down to the subsurface oceans with the earliest of these probes, though. A better strategy would be to only tunnel part-way into the crust at first, capturing liquid samples of water before refreezing of the ice. After all, this ice in the crust could have been part of the lower, liquid ocean at some point in the past, and it should be analyzed thoroughly before heat-tunneling any deeper. The decision to make the tether long enough to go all the way through the crust, into the subsurface ocean itself, is not one to make lightly. It would be best to study what we find in molten crust-samples, first, before tunneling all the way through the protective crusts of these oceans. 

Initial Transmission After Arrival, from the First Automated Spacecraft from the Pluto/Charon System, “Wizonn Shore,” to Visit the Mysterious Planet Earth, Surrounded by Its Atmosphere of High-Pressure Nitrogen (and Toxic Oxygen) High-Temperature Vapors

[Source: This is the lead story in the most recent issue of The Charon Space Central Daily, published electronically every 6th or 7th Earth day, since Pluto’s day lasts almost as long as our week. I simply translated it into English, after I intercepted the transmission, so that at least some other humans can read it.]

Earth is the most massive of the inner rocky planets, with the mass of 459 plutos, according to the most accurate measurements relayed so far by Wizonn Shore, in recent days, on the robotic spacecraft’s approach to the giant rocky world. Earth’s radius, 5.5 times that of Pluto, gives it a volume of about 160 plutos, so it is almost three times as dense as either of our homeworlds. Its surface area, as the largest rocky body in the solar system, is almost 23 times greater than that of Pluto and Charon combined. However, as this chart shows, much of Earth’s surface is covered with deadly oceans, utterly useless for any form of life as it evolved in the Pluto / Charon system. These enormous accumulations of liquid dihydrogen monoxide are the largest yet discovered anywhere, so incredibly hot (averaging ~300 kelvins) that, at Earth’s high atmospheric pressure, that compound exists as a freely-flowing, highly-reactive liquid covering over 70% of earth’s surface, except for rare areas where it is frozen, mostly near the poles and/or at the top of Earth’s taller mountains. Unfortunately, 300 kelvins is about seven times what natives of Pluto, Charon, or our colonies are used to, in terms of temperatures above absolute zero, so Earth is believed by most scientists to hold no potential for colonization.

It was this high temperature that prevented exploration of the inner solar system’s rocky planets — until recent developments in high-temperature adaptive technology made it possible for us to begin our exploration of the inner solar system, breaking the previously-inviolable heat-barrier at the asteroid belt, and sending our now more heat-resistant spacecraft into the previously “forbidden” region — first, Mars, which has been studied already with two separate mission; and now, finally, Earth. The exploration of Venus and Mercury by robot craft, however, at least for now, awaits further improvements in heat-resistant materials science.

 

The first surface-reconnaissance rover, similar to those used on Mars, was sent to a place with relatively low large-alien population density, as estimated by artificial light-output from different parts of the land surface, during Earth’s night. However, of course, its landing position had to be somewhere in the 29.2% of Earth’s surface not covered with oceans — for a rover landing in liquid dihydrogen monoxide would instantly be destroyed, as it sank to ever-more-crushing pressures in a hot liquid often called, on decoded Earth voice-transmissions, “water.” On both Pluto and Charon, in all laboratory experiments, this dangerous “water” has quickly rendered inert any electronic components — of anything — to which it is exposed. (Indeed, this, as well as the numerous deaths which resulted, was the reason that such “water” experiments have largely been abandoned, except by Earth-colonization advocates who have, a few admit, no good answers to the questions about Earth already being inhabited, nor how to deal with the toxic oxygen gas making up nearly one-fifth of Earth’s atmosphere.)

Despite the care given to choosing a landing-spot, this was still the first and only image sent before our spacecraft’s first rover was unexpectedly deactivated, for unknown reasons. These reasons are suspected to be related to the strange, pink alien creature dominating the image, although that is, at this point, speculation.

With data transmissions from the first landing probe ceased, Pluto/Charon’s automated spacecraft Wizonn Shore, launched from Charon eight years ago, continues to take pictures, from Earth-orbit, as fast as it can, while waiting on instructions from Charon Space Central regarding when to risk launching a second landing rover. Transmission of the images taken from orbit is a secondary priority to actually taking the pictures, as is happening now, so our news services do not yet have images of Earth of any higher resolutions than those already sent as Wizonn Shore approached Earth over the last few weeks.

While there has been some speculation in the press that the alien pictured in the one image sent from Earth might be the dominant species on Earth, that is not supported by visual transmissions decoded in the radio part of the electromagnetic spectrum, most of which depict the activity of a relatively hairless biped which compensates for its nudity, for reasons unknown, by covering itself with “clothes,” the buying and selling of which is, judging from the transmissions we have decoded so far, a major activity for Earth’s bipedal inhabitants.

It is these mysterious bipeds, and their activity as observed by our own devices, which all of Pluto, Charon, and our colonies on the outer moons are waiting to see images of, as taken by Wizonn Shore. Will it match what they beam out in all directions, using radio waves, with what seems to be careless abandon — or will the “as seen on TV” version of Earth prove to be an elaborate deception, on the part of Earth’s inhabitants?

Of course, the computers processing these images do not care about our collective frustration, and so we continue to wait. Might “clothes” be adopted only at a certain age by Earth’s dominant bipeds? Might that single, naked, pink-skinned alien, photographed by our short-lived landing-rover, simply be an immature form of the same species? At this time, those questions, and more, remain open.