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I think I'm in love

18.08.10

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Como chegar ao mar de Europa sem estragar tudo

18.08.10


"Europa, the second Galilean moon of Jupiter, has been my favorite planetary body for a long time. The reason I like Europa so much is that it’s a world whose orbital dynamics with Jupiter, its orbital resonances with the other Galilean moons, and its own rigid-body dynamics have a strong hand in creating its surface features – and giving it the potential to harbor life. It’s one of perhaps two or three extraterrestrial places in the Solar System where we might hope to find life.

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Thanks to magnetometer measurements and images from the Galileo mission, it’s pretty much established at this point that Europa has an icy outer shell over a global liquid ocean, with a rocky core on the inside.* The only question is how thick that ice shell is – I’ve read estimates ranging from 10 meters to 100 kilometers, with a pretty high confidence of ones to tens of kilometers.

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Planetary scientists have a number of models for how these double ridges form, and they generally seem to agree that the ridges mark the locations of cracks in the ice crust.

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Scientist; click for full article)

We do at least know, from the Galileo mission, that these cracks often have accompanying veneers of organic (e.g. carbon-based) molecules and salts splashed onto the ice surface. This is why the cracks appear as brown stripes in large-scale context images. The crack/veneer combination suggests that there are organic molecules and salts in the Europan ocean, and that those compounds get pumped to the surface through these cracks.

So, let’s take stock: Europa is the only extraterrestrial world with a global liquid water ocean, there is a definite possibility for life in that ocean, and these double-ridged cracks are a possible gateway into the alien biosphere.

Well, then, let’s go diving! Read on for my concept of an ambitious Europan ocean-exploring mission, which I call the Ice Fracture Explorer.

The Ice Fracture Explorer, or IFE, would be a combination lander/penetrator vehicle that I imagine to be a little smaller than the size of one of the MER rovers. Ideally, several IFEs would accompany an orbiter to Europa. The orbiter component of the mission would contain instruments designed to give the planetary scientists on the mission enough information to select a few double-ridged cracks that are actively being worked open and shut by tides. The flight controllers would then dispatch an IFE to each of those cracks.

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