NASA is building a roadmap for robots that could visit ocean worlds through future space missions and crack the worlds' thick, icy shells to explore subsurface seas in search of life.
Recently, the space agency revealed results from a NASA-sponsored workshop held in Feb. 2023 at which scientists and engineers gathered to discuss possible "cryobot" mission concepts. The idea is to crack through the icy exteriors of solar system moons, like Jupiter's moon Europa or Saturn's moon Enceladus, and drop a probe within that can explore the underlying liquid ocean.
The cryobot concept explored is an alternative to simply drilling into a world, and involves using a cylindrical device dispatched from a mother unit at the surface of an icy ocean world that can melt ice and therefore slip down as water flows around it and refreezes.
These probes, and this so-called "thermal drilling" technique, are currently commonly employed to investigate glaciers and ice caps on Earth, but the icy shells of worlds like Europa and Enceladus are colder and thicker. They also present behaviors that are far less predictable.
Parlaying current terrestrial thermal drilling operations into extraterrestrial environments via cryobots has been the focus of researchers supported by NASA's Scientific Exploration Subsurface Access Mechanism for Europa (SESAME) and Concepts for Ocean worlds Life Detection Technology (COLDTech) programs for several years.
While these were the four key elements of ocean world exploring cryobots discussed by the around 40 attendees of this workshop, other things were looked at, such as instruments that can sample and analyze collected liquids, ice anchoring systems to secure surface-based modules, and materials to coat the surface of the cryobot that won’t corrode in alien environments.
The overall outcome of the mission planning exercise was that there is a great deal of work to be done, but a cryobot mission to icy solar system worlds is feasible.
This ultimately means that finding life on other worlds is more plausible than ever before.