It’s often said that we know more about the Moon than our own oceans. But what about the oceans of other moons?
Robotic-engineering company German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) has been working on the EurEx (Europa Explorer) project, which includes conceptual plans for a robotic system capable of exploring Europa’s icy subterranean oceans.
Europa, Jupiter’s sixth closest moon, is thought to be one of the more habitable pockets of our solar system, as it's believed to have a salty liquid water ocean beneath its surface. The ocean is also shielded from radiation, making Europa a promising host for alien life.
Nevertheless, the mission comes with its fair share of difficulties.
Firstly, the delay in communication between Europa and Earth could be somewhere in the realm of 33 to 53 minutes. This means the robot must be able to work independently from Earth-control as it will take too long for scientists to react spontaneously.
The DFKI Video showing their plans for the EurEx exploration of Europa's oceans.
The autonomous robot will have to melt through Europa's 3 to 15-kilometer-thick (1.8 to 9.3 mile) ice crust to create a tunnel that reaches the salt water layer beneath. Once the tunnel reaches this liquid ocean, it will station a dock on the ice “ceiling” and deploy an army of “micro-gliders” that will spread out and send signals.
After these micro-gliders collect enough information, a spear-like submarine called Leng will be deployed and will begin to explore the ocean, which they predict could be as deep as 100 kilometers (62 miles). It will swim to the bottom of the ocean and record data before coming back to the dock to communicate what it has found, recharge its batteries, and download any new missions.
Obviously, EurEx is more of an experimental and conceptual design at the moment, so it’s unlikely it will become a reality within the coming few years. That said, it has some very serious financial backing from the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology and the German Aerospace Centre.
In the meanwhile, you can check out their fully autonomous test mission in the saltwater basin at the DFKI Robotics Innovation Center.