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.


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.


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. 

Meditating, and Not

I just noticed that I can elect to pay attention to my breathing, or ignore it, but one or the other keeps happening. Changing which one I focus on changes the way I think. This is interesting.

The Minute of the Winter Solstice


Shortly before Winter began at 4:44 CST (USA), I wondered if it were Winter yet, and googled it. Here’s what I found. I was astonished when I looked at the current time and the time of the Winter solstice, using a Google-search, and they matched. This was a bizarre coincidence, and I thought it worth a screen-shot and a blog-post, all while in a bewildered state.

2016: a year that could never have been predicted. There’s little time before 2017 is here. May it be a better year for us all.

Reading: It’s What You Do


I have observed many families where reading is simply what people do. In one, a favorite family story is of a little girl (a toddler) whose parents and older brother were sitting in the living room, reading. No one told anyone else to read; this was simply something people did. The little girl was so young that she was holding her book upside-down, but she was doing her best.

This family does not consent to be identified by name, but I do have permission to describe the scene above. There are thousands of families like this — in the USA alone. May they increase in number.

When reading is simply what you do, it has a huge impact on who you are.

A Peek Backwards, as Far Back as Possible


Never before have I deliberately tried to recall my earliest memories. This morning, however, simply to see what might happen, I tried it. In my imagination, I returned to further back than I ever had gone before, to a period before I learned to communicate. In this early period, I could visualize things, with the imagery which appeared being geometric in nature. Later, I had to learn English, as a second language, to express the mathematical ideas in my head. My first word, according to my parents, described one of the two shining round things in the sky: “Moon.” I have always preferred moonlight to sunlight, for the intensity of direct sunlight is painful to me.

At least, that’s how I remember these things; I could be wrong about the earliest parts. All I know is that the image above popped into my head, when I tried to recall my oldest accessible memory. I then made the image above, in a short period of time, using Stella 4d, Polyhedron Navigator, available to try for free at this website. (I’ve used the program for over a decade, and find it an indispensable tool for geometrical investigations, such as this recreation of what I found in this morning’s early-memory-search.)

What Is Attempted Orthoism?

attempted orthoism

When the topic of labels for belief systems, life philosophies, and the like comes up, I find that I tend to become uncomfortable with labels which are also used by, well, anyone else. For this reason, I’ve named my own system “attempted orthoism,” which I will now try to explain.

First, I’ll deal with that elephant in the room: the Creator of the Universe, by any name. Does such an entity exist? Well, I simply don’t know, but I also realize that this could change. If there is a deity, and that entity chooses to make evidence of his/her/its existence known to me, I’ll pay attention to the evidence, and see where it leads me. This is, to me, given my present state, the only position that makes sense.

“Ortho-,” as a prefix, can mean “right” (as in a right angle), or “correct,” either one. The suffix “-ism” is used in words such as Catholicism, capitalism, materialism, socialism, Communism, Hinduism, etc. — the “-isms” are simply systems of belief and/or thought. The meaning of “attempted” is obvious, so if you put it all together, here’s what it means: I simply attempt to be correct. Less formally, I try do the right thing, in the various situations I encounter in life.

These are some of the features of attempted orthoism:

  • The desire to hold positions on various issues which are correct.
  • The desire to do the ethical thing in all situations.
  • Honesty. Lies are not helpful in any effort to be correct.
  • The willingness to admit it when I do not know something, once I realize that I do not know it.
  • The refusal to reject the possibility that supernatural entities exist, in the absence of empirical evidence for their non-existence.
  • The inability to embrace a belief in any supernatural entity, as long as no compelling, empirical evidence is found that such a being does exist.
  • Respect of the rights of others peacably disagree, on these or other issues.
  • Maintaining high standards for evidence, and acceptance of principles. This means using and testing hypotheses, reasoning logically, and guarding myself from error with a mental shield: my skepticism. To prove something to me, a mathematical proof would be an excellent approach. If you simply want me to accept that something happens provisionally, until and unless new evidence arises to disprove it, then the scientific method is the way to go. I place a premium on logic, and reasonable arguments.
  • Refusal to accept emotional arguments, or arguments from authority, for the simple reason that such methods so often lead to serious error.
  • Re-testing previously-accepted principles, for we can all fool ourselves better than anyone else.
  • Reservation of the right to question anything and/or anyone.

This is not a complete list. Attempted orthoism is a work in progress.

On Therapeutic Writing, and Putting Hexakaidekaphobia in Remission


When my mother died, last November 16, I wrote an obituary for her, which I was then asked (unexpectedly) to read at her funeral, as one of two eulogies. This was one of the most difficult things I have ever done, but writing it did help me (somewhat) with the immediate problem I was having dealing with grief.

After the funeral, I felt numb much of the time, for months, until May 16 arrived — exactly six months after she died — at which point my tightly-controlled emotional state shattered, leaving me in worse shape (in some ways) than I was on, say, November 17 of last year. This was unexpected, and caused significant problems, including the development of monthly hexakaidekaphobia, a morbid dread and fear of the 16th day of every month. (The word is a modification of “triskaidekaphobia,” an irrational fear of the number thirteen).

June 16 was worse than May 16 — absolutely full of PTSD attacks. (I’ve had PTSD for most of my life; my mother’s death made it worse.) Fortunately, I don’t try to hide mental health problems, as I once did — I try to find the help I need, from physicians, to deal with such problems, and, when I find things that help me, I write about them. I also have long used recreational mathematics to help me feel better when depressed.

It was in this context that mid-July arrived. I went to sleep on July 15th with the knowledge that it was extremely important for me to find better coping mechanisms before the start of school in August. When I woke up on July 16, which could have been another horrific day of severe depression, anxiety, and other problems, I did not feel those negative emotions. This does not mean I had “gotten over” the facts that my mother did die, and that I miss her terribly. However, it did mean I was experiencing grief differently: I was feeling grief, rather than letting feelings of grief control me — and there is a huge difference between the two.

That morning, July 16, I knew what I needed to do as soon as I woke up: I needed to write. For me, that generally means blogging, and that’s what happened. This “therapeutic writing,” as I call it, was helpful enough on July 16 that I continued it the next day. When I next spoke to my doctors, I told them I was doing this, and why, and they agreed that such writing (like the “mathematical therapy” I have done for years) was an excellent, helpful activity. (This “check with professionals” step is essential, and I do not recommend attempting mental health therapy without the help of at least one licensed, qualified psychiatrist, and/or other type of therapist, such as a clinical psychologist.)

Of course, I could do this therapeutic writing in a spiral notebook, and keep it private; no writing has to go on the Internet. Why, then, do I choose to post such material where anyone can see it? I first explained why I blog about mental health issues in this post, but the short version is this: I hope that my openness on this subject can help reduce the social stigma which, unfortunately, still surrounds topics related mental health. This stigma is harmful because it keeps millions of people from seeking the professional help they need. I have also found it a personally liberating experience to come out of the “closet” on such issues, for, as with other metaphorical “closets,” it is the truth that closets are not good places for people to live their lives.

School starts on August 15 — only four days from now — and I’m going to do everything I can to make that day, the next day (the formerly-dreaded 16th of the month), and the rest of the days in the school year as good as they can possibly be for my students, as well as myself. I could tell I was on the right track when I decided to write about monthly hexakaidekaphobia early this morning, but in the past tense. Before I started writing, I “warmed up” by constructing the geometric art at the top of this post, which, if you examine carefully, you will see is based on — what else? — the number sixteen. In my case, at least, mathematical therapy and therapeutic writing go hand-in-hand, and this is what I am doing to try to leave my monthly hexakaidecaphobia in the past, where it belongs.

I still miss my mother. She was once, as I am, a science teacher, and was also involved in education in many other ways. She would want me to have good school days on August 16th, September 16th, and so on, as well as the days in-between — and, to properly honor her memory, and give my students the education they deserve, I am determined to do my best to do exactly that.