Searching for Life in Europa's Ocean - With a Tiny Submarine

Artist's conception of DADU exploring ice-covered waters. Image Credit: Jonas Jonsson / Angstrom Space Technology Centre of Uppsala University

Artist’s conception of DADU exploring ice-covered waters.
Image Credit: Jonas Jonsson / Angstrom Space Technology Centre of Uppsala University

For decades, Jupiter’s moon Europa has been the focus of fascination and debate. Why? Because it has a global ocean—a deep, salty ocean similar to those on Earth, except that in Europa’s case it is always covered by a crust of ice. Speculation has grown that there could be life of some kind in that alien watery darkness, and now there is a new proposal for how to look for it: a tiny submarine!

The miniature submersible, tentatively named Deeper Access, Deeper Understanding (DADU), would be small, not much bigger than two soda cans, but it could be just what is needed to explore this waterworld.

The idea is a collaboration between scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California and Uppsala University in Sweden.

“What I think is exciting with this is to be able to explore previously inaccessible areas, to explore where no ‘man’ has explored before,” said Jonas Jonsson, an engineer at NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.

The mission would have the advantage of lower costs as well as being able to access the underground ocean using only a small borehole through the ice. It would be similar to studies being done at Lake Vostok in Antarctica, where the lake waters are also covered by ice kilometres thick.

Illustration of Europa's interior, with subsurface ocean and ice crust. Image Credit: NASA / JPL

Illustration of Europa’s interior, with subsurface ocean and ice crust. Image Credit: NASA / JPL

The submersible would use eight thrusters to maneuver and be attached to a surface lander by a fiber optic tether. It could take high-resolution photos and video and use sonar, as well as of course analyzing the water for any possible microbes.

Such a mission would not be easy, but is certainly doable. As Jonsson states: “I don’t think there are any particular technological breakthroughs required. There exist possible solutions for the technological barriers; however, further developments and optimizations are required for such a mission to succeed.”

It will be some time before this or something similar could happen; in the meantime, the European Space Agency hopes to launch the JUpiter ICy moons Explorer mission (JUICE) to measure the thickness of Europa’s icy crust starting in 2030. NASA’s proposed Europa Clipper mission would study the moon in detail during a series of flybys. But if we can actually swim around in this otherworldly ocean after that, then let’s do it!

This article was first published on The Meridiani Journal.

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6 comments to Searching for Life in Europa’s Ocean – With a Tiny Submarine

  • Yes, let’s do it! It’s a logical and important next step in planetary exploration giving us even deeper insights into the possible origins of life right in our cosmic backyard.

  • Is there any way of remotely mapping the thickness of the ice, so that you can find the thin parts?

  • Karol

    I, for one, would be absolutely delighted to have my taxes increased by the cost of a pizza and a six-pack to fund this incredible mission of discovery! We have the technology to do it, and what we don’t have our gifted NASA engineers can create, further driving our technological progress. These worlds are “begging” to be explored. Hey, maybe we can add a fifty cent surcharge to each ticket to a sporting event or concert which would easily pay for the mission. Yeah, and then I will sprout feathers and fly to the Paris Air Show.

  • Leonidas

    I’m still grinding my teeth, in the realisation that we aren’t there yet-scuba diving on Europa or Enceladus!

    ESA’s JUICE mission is really exciting, and a step in the right direction but…in the 2030s? OK, it’s better late than never, but still…

  • […] Submarines in spaaaaace […]