Washington, April 25: In one of its most ambitious projects in deep space, a team of SA researchers are proposing to send robots at the centre of icy moons to explore the subsurface ocean for presence of life. The two possible candidates are: the icy moons of gas giants Jupiter and Saturn which harbour sub-surface oceans perfect for hosting life.
According to a recent study, Jupiter’s moon Europa is creating a strong gravitatiol pull which is creating more heat on the moon’s ice-sheet that is enough to support a sub-surface ocean.
But it is Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus — 500 km in diameter and 1.272 billion km away from the Earth - that serves as a leading candidate for extra-terrestrial life.
This year, one of most promising proposals that SA Innovative Advanced Concepts Programme (NIAC) has received is from the researchers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at Pasade, California - proposing robots to explore the icy moons.
The Icy-Moon Cryovolcano Explorer (ICE) project aims to land on these moons and send a robotic explorer down the ice volcano to deploy a submersible to explore the ocean.
With a thick icy crust, Europa may be tough for a drilling robot to reach the subsurface ocean so the researchers have now turned their eyes on Enceladus.
The data from SA’s Cassini probe has strongly indicated that the cryovolcanic plumes of Enceladus probably origite in a biomolecule-friendly oceanic environment.
Enceladus, which probably has an ocean underlying its icy surface, has somehow maged to sprout multiple fissures along its south pole.
A surface-to-subsurface robotic system, the ICE will land on the surface of an icy moon, traverse to a cryovolcano, descend into its opening, perform in-situ science in the vent or crevasse and ultimately deploy underwater vehicles to explore a subsurface ocean.
ICE involves three modules: Descent Module (DM), Surface Module (SM) and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). DM will carry AUVs and descend into a vent by using a combition of roving, climbing and hopping, like an experienced human alpinist. SM will stay on the surface, generating power and communicating with the Earth. (IANS)