A submersible probe that could possibly be used on Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa is taking the next step to test its capabilities. The Environmentally Non-Disturbing Under-ice Robotic Antarctic Explorer, also known as ENDURANCE, will swim untethered under ice, and collect data to create three-dimensional maps of underwater environments. The probe also will take samples of microbial life. Earlier this year, it operated successfully in a 25 meter frozen lake in Wisconsin, USA. Now it will plunge under a permanently ice covered lake in Antarctica that is 40 meters deep. ENDURANCE isn’t like the Mars Rovers or other remote-operated probes. Once deployed, it’s on its own to systematically explore, take water samples, and find its way back. “It will have to think on its own,” said Peter Doran, an Earth scientist at the University of Illinois in Chicago.
In the February 2008 test, ENDURANCE successfully found its way around the bottom of the lake and back to the hole that drilled in the ice to get the probe in and out of the lake. It also demonstrated that its electronics functioned perfectly well in cold water.
At Lake Bonney in Antarctica, ENDURANCE will not only map the lake and explore its biology, but also take a close look at the base of a feature called Blood Falls, where reddish, iron-containing salts spill out of the face of a glacier at the lake’s upper end.
If all goes well the next test would have the probe or an improved version descend through 3.5 km of ice to one of the world’s largest, deepest and most mysterious lakes, Lake Vostok, also in Antarctica.
But even that pales in comparison to what a probe might encounter at Europa. Scientists believe that Europa’s ocean could be up to 100 kilometers deep, under 6 kilometers of ice.
Hot water drills will bore a hole for ENDURANCE to enter the water in Antarctica. If all goes well, the probe will be tested again in 2009.
But many hurdles remain before an underwater vehicle could possibly head to Europa. Presently, Endurance is too massive to send on interplanetary travel. Engineers will also have to come up with a way to drill through Europa’s icy crust and lower the sub safely through the ice.
But many scientists feel that an orbiting spacecraft would be the best way to study Europa, before sending an underwater probe. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is currently working on a concept called the Europa Explorer which would deliver a low orbit spacecraft to determine the presence (or absence) of a liquid water ocean under Europa’s ice surface. It would also map the surface and subsurface for future exploration.