On August 19th, 2019, NASA announced that their Europa Clipper mission has been approved to move to the next phase of the mission, progressing to the final design stage.Continue reading “Exploring The Icy Moons of Jupiter. NASA’s Europa Clipper and ESA’s JUICE”
Ganymede was shaped by pronounced periods of tectonic activity in the past, according to a new paper. It’s no longer active and its surface is more-or-less frozen in place now. But this discovery opens the door to better planning for future missions to Jupiter’s other frozen moon Europa. Unlike Ganymede, Europa is still tectonically active, and understanding past geological activity on Ganymede helps us understand present-day Europa.
Jupiter’s moon Europa has been the subject of fascination ever since the Pioneer 10 and 11 and Voyager 1 and 2 missions passed through the system back in the 1970s. While the moon has no viable atmosphere and is bombarded by intense radiation from Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field, scientists believe that one of the most likely places to find life beyond Earth exists beneath its icy surface.
Little wonder then why multiple missions are being planned to study this moon up-close. However, if and when those missions reach Europa sometime in the next decade, they will have to contend with some sharp surface features that could make it hard to land. Such is the conclusion of a new study by researchers from Britain, the US and NASA’s Ames Research Center, which indicates that Europa’s surface is covered in bladed terrain.
Ever since the Galileo probe provided compelling evidence for the existence of a global ocean beneath the surface of Europa in the 1990s, scientists have wondered when we might be able to send another mission to this icy moon and search for possible signs of life. Most of these mission concepts call for an orbiter or lander than will study Europa’s surface, searching the icy sheet for signs of biosignatures turned up from the interior.
Unfortunately, Europa’s surface is constantly bombarded by radiation, which could alter or destroy material transported to the surface. Using data from the Galileo and Voyager 1 spacecraft, a team of scientists recently produced a map that shows how radiation varies across Europa’s surface. By following this map, future missions like NASA’s Europa Clipper will be able to find the spots where biosignatures are most likely to still exist.
As many missions have revealed by studying Europa’s surface, the moon experiences periodic exchanges between the interior and the surface. If there is life in its interior ocean, then biological material could theoretically be brought to the surface where it could be studied. Since radiation from Jupiter’s magnetic field would destroy this material, knowing where it is most intense, how deep it goes, and how it could affect the interior are all important questions.
As Tom Nordheim, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explained in a recent NASA press release:
“If we want to understand what’s going on at the surface of Europa and how that links to the ocean underneath, we need to understand the radiation. When we examine materials that have come up from the subsurface, what are we looking at? Does this tell us what is in the ocean, or is this what happened to the materials after they have been radiated?”
To address these question, Nordheim and his colleagues examined data from Galileo‘s flybys of Europa and electron measurements from NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft. After looking closely at the electrons blasting the moon’s surface, Nordheim and his team found that the radiation doses vary by location. The harshest radiation is concentrated in zones around the equator, and the radiation lessens closer to the poles.
The study which describes their findings recently appeared in the scientific journal Nature under the title “Preservation of potential biosignatures in the shallow subsurface of Europa“. The study was led by Nordheim and was co-authored by Kevin Hand (also with the JPL) and Chris Paranicas from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.
“This is the first prediction of radiation levels at each point on Europa’s surface and is important information for future Europa missions,” said Paranicas. Now that scientists know where to find regions least altered by radiation, they will be able to designate areas of study for the Europa Clipper, a JPL-led mission that is expected to launch as early as 2022.
For the sake of their study, Nordheim and his team went beyond a conventional two-dimensional map to build 3D models that examined how far below the surface the radiation penetrates. To test how deep organic material would have to be buried in order to survive, Nordheim and his team tested the effect of radiation on amino acids (the basic building blocks for proteins) to figure out how Europa’s exposure to radiation would affect potential biosignatures.
The results indicate how deep scientists will need to dig or drill during a potential future Europa lander mission in order to find any biosignatures that might be preserved. In the highest-radiation zones around the equator, the depth at which biosignatures could be found ranged from 10 to 20 cm (4 to 8 inches). At the middle- and high-latitudes, closer to the poles, the depths decrease to about 1 cm (0.4 inches). As Hand indicated:
“The radiation that bombards Europa’s surface leaves a fingerprint. If we know what that fingerprint looks like, we can better understand the nature of any organics and possible biosignatures that might be detected with future missions, be they spacecraft that fly by or land on Europa.”
When the Europa Clipper mission reaches the Jovian system, the spacecraft will orbit Jupiter and conducting about 45 close flybys of Europa. It’s advanced suite of scientific instruments will include cameras, spectrometers, plasma and radar instruments which will investigate the composition of the moon’s surface, its ocean, and material that has been ejected from the surface.
“Europa Clipper’s mission team is examining possible orbit paths, and proposed routes pass over many regions of Europa that experience lower levels of radiation,” Hand said. “That’s good news for looking at potentially fresh ocean material that has not been heavily modified by the fingerprint of radiation.”
With this new radiation map, the mission team will be able to narrow the range of possible research sites. This, in turn, will increase the likelihood that the orbiter mission will be able to settle the decades-old mystery of whether or not there is life in the Jovian system.
In the 1970s, the Jupiter system was explored by a succession of robotic missions, beginning with the Pioneer 10 and 11 missions in 1972/73 and the Voyager 1 and 2 missions in 1979. In addition to other scientific objectives, these missions also captured images of Europa’s icy surface features, which gave rise to the theory that the moon had an interior ocean that could possibly harbor life.
Since then, astronomers have also found indications that there are regular exchanges between this interior ocean and the surface, which includes evidence of plume activity captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. And recently, a team of NASA scientists studied the strange features on Europa’s surface to create models that show how the interior ocean exchanges material with the surface over time.
The study, which recently appeared in the the Geophysical Research Letters under the title “Band Formation and Ocean-Surface Interaction on Europa and Ganymede“, was conducted by Samuel M. Howell and Robert T. Pappalardo – two researchers from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. For their study, the team examined both Ganymede and Europa to see what the moons surface features indicated about how they changed over time.
Using the same two-dimensional numerical models that scientists have used to solve mysteries about motion in the Earth’s crust, the team focused on the linear features known as “bands” and “groove lanes” on Europa and Ganymede. The features have long been suspected to be tectonic in nature, where fresh deposits of ocean water have risen to the surface and become frozen over previously-deposited layers.
However, the connection between this band-forming processes and exchanges between the ocean and the surface has remained elusive until now. To address this, the team used their 2-D numerical models to simulate ice shell faulting and convection.Their simulations also produced a beautiful animation that tracked the movement of “fossil” ocean material, which rises from the depths, freezes into the base of the icy surface, and deforms it over time.
Whereas the white layer at the top is the surface crust of Europa, the colored band in the middle (orange and yellow) represents the stronger sections of the ice sheet. Over time, gravitational interactions with Jupiter cause the ice shell to deform, pulling the top layer of ice apart and creating faults in the upper ice. At the bottom is the softer ice (teal and blue), which begins to churn as the upper layers pull apart.
This causes water from Europa’s interior ocean, which is in contact with the softer lower layers of the icy shell (represented by white dots), to mix with the ice and slowly be transported to the surface. As they explain in their paper, the process where this “fossil” ocean material becomes trapped in Europa’s ice shell and slowly rises to the surface can take hundreds of thousands of years or more.
As they state in their study:
“We find that distinct band types form within a spectrum of extensional terrains correlated to lithosphere strength, governed by lithosphere thickness and cohesion. Furthermore, we find that smooth bands formed in weak lithosphere promote exposure of fossil ocean material at the surface.”
In this respect, once this fossil material reaches the surface, it acts as a sort of geological record, showing how the ocean was millions of years ago and not as it is today. This is certainly significant when it comes to future missions to Europa, such as NASA’s Europa Clipper mission. This spacecraft, which is expected to launch sometime in the 2020s, will be the first to study Europa exclusively.
In addition to studying the composition of Europa’s surface (which will tell us more about the composition of the ocean), the spacecraft will be studying surface features for signs of current geological activity. On top of that, the mission intends to look for key compounds in the surface ice that would indicate the possible presence of life in the interior (i.e. biosignatures).
If what this latest study indicates is true, then the ice and compounds the Europa Clipper will be examining will essentially be “fossils” from hundreds of thousands or even millions of years ago. In short, any biomarkers the spacecraft detects – i.e. signs of potential life – will essentially be dated. However, this need not deter us from sending missions to Europa, for even evidence of past life would be groundbreaking, and a good indication that life still exists there today.
If anything, it makes the case for a lander that can explore Europa’s plumes, or perhaps even a Europa submarine (cryobot), all the more necessary! If there is life beneath Europa’s icy surface, we are determined to find it – provided we don’t contaminate it in the process!
Jupiter’s moon Europa continues to fascinate and amaze! In 1979, the Voyager missions provided the first indications that an interior ocean might exist beneath it’s icy surface. Between 1995 and 2003, the Galileo spaceprobe provided the most detailed information to date on Jupiter’s moons to date. This information bolstered theories about how life could exist in a warm water ocean located at the core-mantle boundary.
Even though the Galileo mission ended when the probe crashed into Jupiter’s atmosphere, the spaceprobe is still providing vital information on Europa. After analyzing old data from the mission, NASA scientists have found independent evidence that Europa’s interior ocean is venting plumes of water vapor from its surface. This is good news for future mission to Europa, which will attempt to search these plumes for signs of life.
The study which describes their findings, titled “Evidence of a plume on Europa from Galileo magnetic and plasma wave signatures“, recently appeared in the journal Nature Astronomy. The study was led by Xianzhe Jia, a space physicist from the Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering at the University of Michigan, and included members from UCLA and the University of Iowa.
The data was collected in 1997 by Galileo during a flyby of Europa that brought it to within 200 km (124 mi) of the moon’s surface. At the time, its Magnetometer (MAG) sensor detected a brief, localized bend in Jupiter’s magnetic field, which remained unexplained until now. After running the data through new and advanced computer models, the team was able to create a simulation that showed that this was caused by interaction between the magnetic field and one of the Europa’s plumes.
This analysis confirmed ultraviolet observations made by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope in 2012, which suggested the presence of water plumes on the moon’s surface. However, this new analysis used data collected much closer to the source, which indicated how Europa’s plumes interact with the ambient flow of plasma contained within Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field.
In addition to being the lead author on this study, Jia is also the co-investigator for two instruments that will travel aboard the Europa Clipper mission – which may launch as soon as 2022 to explore the moon’s potential habitability. Jia’s and his colleagues were inspired to reexamine data from the Galileo mission thanks to Melissa McGrath, a member of the SETI Institute and also a member of the Europa Clipper science team.
During a presentation to her fellow team scientists, McGrath highlighted other Hubble observations of Europa. As Jiang explained in a recent NASA press release:
“The data were there, but we needed sophisticated modeling to make sense of the observation. One of the locations she mentioned rang a bell. Galileo actually did a flyby of that location, and it was the closest one we ever had. We realized we had to go back. We needed to see whether there was anything in the data that could tell us whether or not there was a plume.”
When they first examined the information 21 years ago, the high-resolution data obtained by the MAG instrument showed something strange. But it was thanks to the lessons provided by the Cassini mission, which explored the plumes on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, that the team knew what to look for. This included material from the plumes which became ionized by the gas giant’s magnetosphere, leaving a characteristic blip in the magnetic field.
After reexamining the data, they found that the same characteristic bend (localized and brief) in the magnetic field was present around Europa. Jia’s team also consulted data from Galileo’s Plasma Wave Spectrometer (PWS) instrument to measure plasma waves caused by charged particles in gases around Europa’s atmosphere, which also appeared to back the theory of a plume.
This magnetometry data and plasma wave signatures were then layered into new 3D modeling developed by the team at the University of Michigan (which simulated the interactions of plasma with Solar system bodies). Last, they added the data obtained from Hubble in 2012 that suggested the dimensions of the potential plumes. The end result was a simulated plume that matched the magnetic field and plasma signatures they saw in the Galileo data.
As Robert Pappalardo, a Europa Clipper project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), indicated:
“There now seem to be too many lines of evidence to dismiss plumes at Europa. This result makes the plumes seem to be much more real and, for me, is a tipping point. These are no longer uncertain blips on a faraway image.”
The findings are certainly good news for the Europa Clipper mission, which is expected to make the journey to Jupiter between 2022 and 2025. When this probe arrives in the Jovian system, it will establish an orbit around Jupiter and conduct rapid, low-altitude flybys of Europa. Assuming that plume activity does take place on the surface of the moon, the Europa Clipper will sample the frozen liquid and dust particles for signs of life.
“If plumes exist, and we can directly sample what’s coming from the interior of Europa, then we can more easily get at whether Europa has the ingredients for life,” Pappalardo said. “That’s what the mission is after. That’s the big picture.”
At present, the mission team is busy looking at potential orbital paths for the Europa Clipper mission. With this new research in hand, the team will choose a path that will take the spaceprobe above the plume locations so that it is in an ideal position to search them for signs of life. If all goes as planned, the Europa Clipper could be the first of several probes that finally proves that there is life beyond Earth.
And be sure to check out this video of the Europa Clipper mission, courtesy of NASA:
The Trump Administration has proposed a $19.1 Billion NASA budget request for Fiscal Year 2018, which amounts to a $0.5 Billion reduction compared to the recently enacted FY 2017 NASA Budget. Although it maintains many programs such as human spaceflight, planetary science and the Webb telescope, the budget also specifies significant cuts and terminations to NASA’s Earth Science and manned Asteroid redirect mission as well as the complete elimination of the Education Office.
Overall NASA’s FY 2018 budget is cut approximately 3%, or $560 million, for the upcoming fiscal year starting in October 2017 as part of the Trump Administration’s US Federal Budget proposal rolled out on May 23, and quite similar to the initial outline released in March.
The cuts to NASA are smaller compared to other Federal science agencies also absolutely vital to the health of US scientific research – such as the NIH, the NSF, the EPA, DOE and NIST which suffer unconscionable double digit slashes of 10 to 20% or more.
The highlights of NASA’s FY 2018 Budget were announced by NASA acting administrator Robert Lightfoot during a ‘State of NASA’ speech to agency employees held at NASA HQ, Washington, D.C. and broadcast to the public live on NASA TV.
Lightfoot’s message to NASA and space enthusiasts was upbeat overall.
“What this budget tells us to do is to keep going!” NASA acting administrator Robert Lightfoot said.
“Keep doing what we’ve been doing. It’s very important for us to maintain that course and move forward as an agency with all the great things we’re doing.”
“I want to reiterate how proud I am of all of you for your hard work – which is making a real difference around the world. NASA is leading the world in space exploration, and that is only possible through all of your efforts, every day.”
“We’re pleased by our top line number of $19.1 billion, which reflects the President’s confidence in our direction and the importance of everything we’ve been achieving.”
Lightfoot recalled the recent White House phone call from President Trump to NASA astronaut & ISS Station Commander Peggy Whitson marking her record breaking flight for the longest cumulative time in space by an American astronaut.
Thus Lightfoot’s vision for NASA has three great purposes – Discover, Explore, and Develop.
“NASA has a historic and enduring purpose. It can be summarized in three major strategic thrusts: Discover, Explore, and Develop. These correspond to our missions of scientific discovery, missions of exploration, and missions of new technology development in aeronautics and space systems.”
Lightfoot further recounted the outstanding scientific accomplishments of NASA’s Mars rover and orbiters paving the path for the agencies plans to send humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s.
“We’ve had a horizon goal for some time now of reaching Mars, and this budget sustains that work and also provides the resources to keep exploring our solar system and look beyond it.”
Lightfoot also pointed to upcoming near term science missions- highlighting a pair of Mars landers – InSIGHT launching next year as well as the Mars 2020 rover. Also NASA’s next great astronomical observatory – the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).
“In science, this budget supports approximately 100 missions: 40 missions currently preparing for launch & 60 operating missions.”
“The James Webb Space Telescope is built!” Lightfoot gleefully announced.
“It’s done testing at Goddard and now has moved to Johnson for tests to simulate the vacuum of space.”
JWST is the scientific successor to the Hubble Space Telescope and slated for launch in Oct. 2018. The budget maintains steady support for Webb.
The Planetary Sciences division receives excellent support with a $1.9 Billion budget request. It includes solid support for the two flagship missions – Mars 2020 and Europa Clipper as well as the two new Discovery class missions selected -Lucy and Psyche.
“The budget keeps us on track for the next selection for the New Frontiers program, and includes formulation of a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa.”
“SLS and Orion are making great progress. They are far beyond concepts, and as I mentioned, components are being tested in multiple ways right now as we move toward the first flight of that integrated system.”
NASA is currently targeting the first integrated launch of SLS and Orion on the uncrewed Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) for sometime in 2019.
Top NASA managers recently decided against adding a crew of two astronauts to the flight after conducting detailed agency wide studies at the request of the Trump Administration.
NASA would have needed an additional $600 to $900 to upgrade EM-1 with humans.
Unfortunately Trump’s FY 2018 NASA budget calls for a slight reduction in development funding for both SLS and Orion – thus making a crewed EM-1 flight fiscally unviable.
The budget request does maintain full funding for both of NASA’s commercial crew vehicles planned to restore launching astronauts to low Earth orbit (LEO) and the ISS from US soil on US rockets – namely the crewed Dragon and CST-100 Starliner – currently under development by SpaceX and Boeing – thus ending our sole reliance on Russian Soyuz for manned launches.
“Working with commercial partners, NASA will fly astronauts from American soil on the first new crew transportation systems in a generation in the next couple of years.”
“We need commercial partners to succeed in low-Earth orbit, and we also need the SLS and Orion to take us deeper into space than ever before.”
However the Trump Administration has terminated NASA’s somewhat controversial plans for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) – initiated under the Obama Administration – to robotically retrieve a near Earth asteroid and redirect it to lunar orbit for a visit by a crewed Orion to gather unique asteroidal samples.
“While we are ending formulation of a mission to an asteroid, known as the Asteroid Redirect Mission, many of the central technologies in development for that mission will continue, as they constitute vital capabilities needed for future human deep space missions.”
Key among those vital capabilities to be retained and funded going forward is Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP).
“Solar electric propulsion (SEP) for our deep space missions is moving ahead as a key lynchpin.”
The Trump Administration’s well known dislike for Earth science and disdain of climate change has manifested itself in the form of the termination of 5 current and upcoming science missions.
NASA’s FY 2018 Earth Science budget suffers a $171 million cut to $1.8 Billion.
“While we are not proposing to move forward with Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 (OCO-3), Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE), Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory Pathfinder (CLARREO PF), and the Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI), this budget still includes significant Earth Science efforts, including 18 Earth observing missions in space as well as airborne missions.”
The DSCOVR Earth-viewing instruments will also be shut down.
NASA’s Office of Education will also be terminated completely under the proposed FY 2018 budget and the $115 million of funding excised.
“While this budget no longer supports the formal Office of Education, NASA will continue to inspire the next generation through its missions and the many ways that our work excites and encourages discovery by learners and educators. Let me tell you, we are as committed to inspiring the next generation as ever.”
Congress will now have its say and a number of Senators, including Republicans says Trumps budget is DOA.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Between the Europa Clipper and the proposed Europa Lander, NASA has made it clear that it intends to send a mission to this icy moon of Jupiter in the coming decade. Ever since the Voyager 1 and 2 probes conducted their historic flybys of the moon in 1973 and 1974 – which offered the first indications of a warm-water ocean in the moon’s interior – scientists have been eager to peak beneath the surface and see what is there.
Towards this end, NASA has issued a grant to a team of researchers from Arizona State University to build and test a specially-designed seismometer that the lander would use to listen to Europa’s interior. Known as the Seismometer for Exploring the Subsurface of Europa (SESE), this device will help scientists determine if the interior of Europa is conducive to life.
According to the profile for the Europa Lander, this microphone would be mounted to the robotic probe. Once it reached the surface of the moon, the seismometer would begin collecting information on Europa’s subsurface environment. This would include data on its natural tides and movements within the shell, which would determine the icy surface’s thickness.
It would also determine if the surface has pockets of water – i.e. subsurface lakes – and see how often water rises to the surface. For some time, scientists have suspected that Europa’s “chaos terrain” would be the ideal place to search for evidence of life. These features, which are basically a jumbled mess of ridges, cracks, and plains, are believed to be spots where the subsurface ocean is interacting with the icy crust.
As such, any evidence of organic molecules or biological organisms would be easiest to find there. In addition, astronomers have also detected water plumes coming from Europa’s surface. These are also considered to be one of the best bets for finding evidence of life in the interior. But before they can be explored directly, determining where reservoirs of water reside beneath the ice and if they are connected to the interior ocean is paramount.
And this is where instruments like the SESE would come into play. Hongyu Yu is an exploration system engineer from ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and the leader of the SESE team. As he stated in a recent article by ASU Now, “We want to hear what Europa has to tell us. And that means putting a sensitive ‘ear’ on Europa’s surface.”
While the idea of a Europa Lander is still in the concept-development stage, NASA is working to develop all the necessary components for such a mission. As such, they have provided the ASU team with a grant to develop and test their miniature seismometer, which measures no more than 10 cm (4 inches) on a side and could easily be fitted aboard a robotic lander.
More importantly, their seismometer differs from conventional designs in that it does not rely on a mass-and-spring sensor. Such a design would be ill-suited for a mission to another body in our Solar System since it needs to be positioned upright, which requires that it be carefully planted and not disturbed. What’s more, the sensor needs to be placed within a complete vacuum to ensure accurate measurements.
By using a micro-electrical system with a liquid electrolyte for a sensor, Yu and his team have created a seismometer that can operate under a wider range of conditions. “Our design avoids all these problems,” he said. “This design has a high sensitivity to a wide range of vibrations, and it can operate at any angle to the surface. And if necessary, they can hit the ground hard on landing.”
As Lenore Dai – a chemical engineer and the director of the ASU’s School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy – explained, the design also makes the SESE well suited for exploring extreme environments – like Europa’s icy surface. “We’re excited at the opportunity to develop electrolytes and polymers beyond their traditional temperature limits,” she said. “This project also exemplifies collaboration across disciplines.”
The SESE can also take a beating without compromising its sensor readings, which was tested when the team struck it with a sledgehammer and found that it still worked afterwards. According to seismologist Edward Garnero, who is also a member of the SESE team, this will come in handy. Landers typically have six to eight legs, he claims, which could be mated with seismometers to turn them into scientific instruments.
Having this many sensors on the lander would give scientists the ability to combine data, allowing them to overcome the issue of variable seismic vibrations recorded by each. As such, ensuring that they are rugged is a must.
“Seismometers need to connect with the solid ground to operate most effectively. If each leg carries a seismometer, these could be pushed into the surface on landing, making good contact with the ground. We can also sort out high frequency signals from longer wavelength ones. For example, small meteorites hitting the surface not too far away would produce high frequency waves, and tides of gravitational tugs from Jupiter and Europa’s neighbor moons would make long, slow waves.”
Such a device could also prove crucial to missions other “ocean worlds” within the Solar System, which include Ceres, Ganymede, Callisto, Enceladus, Titan and others. On these bodies as well, it is believed that life could very well exist in warm-water oceans that lie beneath the surface. As such, a compact, rugged seismometer that is capable of working in extreme-temperature environments would be ideal for studying their interiors.
What’s more, missions of this kind would be able to reveal where the ice sheets on these bodies are thinnest, and hence where the interior oceans are most accessible. Once that’s done, NASA and other space agencies will know exactly where to send in the probe (or possibly the robotic submarine). Though we might have to wait a few decades on that one!
Further Reading: ASU Now
In 2005, the Future In-Space Operations Working Group (FISOWG) was established with the help of NASA to assess how advances in spaceflight technologies could be used to facilitate missions back to the Moon and beyond. In 2006, the FISO Working Group also established the FISO Telecon Series to conduct outreach to the public and educate them on issues pertaining to spaceflight technology, engineering, and science.
Every week, the Telecon Series holds a seminar where experts are able to share the latest news and developments from their respective fields. On Wednesday, April 19th, in a seminar titled “An Air-Breathing Metal-Combustion Power Plant for Venus in situ Exploration“, NASA engineer Michael Paul presented a novel idea where existing technology could be used to make longer-duration missions to Venus.
To recap the history of Venus exploration, very few probes have ever been able to explore its atmosphere or surface for long. Not surprising, considering that the atmospheric pressure on Venus is 92 times what it is here on Earth at sea level. Not to mention the fact that Venus is also the hottest planet in the Solar System – with average surface temperatures of 737 K (462 °C; 863.6 °F).
Hence why those few probes that actually explored the atmosphere and surface in detail – like the Soviet-era Venera probes and landers and NASA’s Pioneer Venus multiprobe – were only able to return data for a matter of hours. All other missions to Venus have either taken the form of orbiters or consisted of spacecraft conducting flybys while en route to other destinations.
Having worked in the fields of space exploration and aerospace engineering for 20 years, Michael Paul is well-versed in the challenges of mounting missions to other planets. During his time with the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL), he contributed to NASA’s Contour and Stereo missions, and was also instrumental in the launch and early operations of the MESSENGER mission to Mercury.
However, it was a flagship-level study in 2008 – performed collaboratively between JHUAPL and NASA’s Jet Propulsion laboratory (JPL) – that opened his eyes to the need for missions that took advantage of the process known as In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU). As he stated during the seminar:
“That year we actually studied a very large mission to Europa which evolved into the current Europa Clipper mission. And we also studied a flagship mission to the Saturn, to Titan specifically. The Titan-Saturn system mission study was a real eye-opener for me in terms what could be done and why we should be doing a lot of more adventurous and more aggressive exploration of in-situ in certain places.”
The flagship mission to Titan was the subject of Paul’s work since joining Penn Sate’s Applied Research Laboratory in 2009. During his time there, he became a NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program (NIAC) Fellow for his co-creation of the Titan Submarine. For this mission, which will explore the methane lakes of Titan, Paul helped to develop underwater power systems that would provide energy for planetary landers that can’t see the Sun.
Having returned to JHUAPL, where he is now the Space Mission Formulation Lead, Paul continues to work on in-situ concepts that could enable missions to locations in the Solar System that present a challenge. In-situ exploration, where local resources are relied upon for various purposes, presents numerous advantages over more traditional concepts, not the least of which is cost-effectiveness.
Consider mission that rely on Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (MMRTG) – where radioactive elements like Plutonium-238 are used to generate electricity. Whereas this type of power system – which was used by the Viking 1 and 2 landers (sent to Mars in 1979) and the more recent Curiosity rover – provides unparalleled energy density, the cost of such missions is prohibitive.
What’s more, in-situ missions could also function in places where conventional solar cells would not work. These include not only locations in the outer Solar System (i.e. Europa, Titan and Enceladus) but also places closer to home. The South Pole-Aitken Basin, for example, is a permanently shadowed location on the Moon that NASA and other space agencies are interesting in exploring (and maybe colonizing) due to the abundance of water ice there.
But there’s also the surface Venus, where sunlight is in short supply because of the planet’s dense atmosphere. As Paul explained in the course of the seminar:
“What can you do with other power systems in places where the Sun just doesn’t shine? Okay, so you want to get to the surface of Venus and last more than a couple of hours. And I think that in the last 10 or 15 years, all the missions that [were proposed] to the surface of Venus pretty much had a two-hour timeline. And those were all proposed, none of those missions were actually flown. And that’s in line with the 2 hours that the Russian landers survived when they got there, to the surface of Venus.”
The solution to this problem, as Paul sees it, is to employ a Stored-Chemical Energy and Power System (SCEPS), also known as a Sterling engine. This proven technology relies on stored chemical energy to generate electricity, and is typically used in underwater systems. But repurposed for Venus, it could provide a lander mission with a considerable amount of time (compared to previous Venus missions) with which to conduct surface studies.
For the power system Paul and his colleagues are envisioning, the Sterling engine would take solid-metal lithium (or possibly solid iodine), and then liquefy it with a pyrotechnic charge. This resulting liquid would then be fed into another chamber where it would combined with an oxidant. This would produce heat and combustion, which would then be used to boil water, spin turbines, and generate electricity.
Such a system is typically closed and produces no exhaust, which makes it very useful for underwater systems that cannot compromise their buoyancy. On Venus, such a system would allow for electrical production without short-lived batteries, an expensive nuclear fuel cell, and could function in a low solar-energy environment.
An added benefit for such a craft operating on Venus is that the oxidizer would be provided locally, thus removing the need for an heavy component. By simply letting in outside CO2 – which Venus’ atmosphere has in abundance – and combining with the system’s liquified lithium (or iodine), the SCEPS system could provide sustained energy for a period of days.
With the help of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) and funding from the Hot Operating Temperature Technology (HOTTech) program – which is overseen by NASA’s Planetary Science Division – Paul and his colleagues were able to test their concept, and found that it was capable of producing sustained heat that was both controllable and tunable.
Further help came from the Glenn Research Center’s COMPASS lab, were engineers from multiple disciplines performs integrated vehicle systems analyses. From all of this, a mission concept known as the Advanced Lithium Venus Explorer (ALIVE) was developed. With the help of Steven Oleson – the head of GRC’s COMPASS lab – Paul and his team envision a mission where a lander would reach the surface of Venus and study it for 5 to 10 days.
All told, that’s an operational window of between 120 and 240 hours – in other words, 60 to 120 times as long as previous missions. However, how much such a mission would cost remains to be seen. According to Paul, that question became the basis of an ongoing debate between himself and Oleson, who disagreed as to whether it would be part of the Discovery Program or the New Frontiers Program.
As Paul explained, missions belonging to the former were recently capped at the $450 to $500 million level while the latter are capped at $850 million. “I believe that if you did this right, you could get it into a Discovery mission,” he said. “Here at APL, I’ve seen really complicated ideas fit inside a Discovery cost cap. And I believe that the way we crafted this mission, you could do this for a Discovery mission. And it would be really exciting to get that done.”
From a purely technological standpoint, this not a new idea. But in terms of space exploration, it has never been done before. Granted, there are still many tests which would need to be conducted before any a mission to Venus can be planned. In particular, there are the byproducts created by combusting lithium and CO2 under Venus-like conditions, which already produced some unexpected results during tests.
In addition, there is the problem of nitrogen gas (N2) – also present in Venus’ atmosphere – building up in the system, which would need to be vented in order to prevent a blowout. But the advantages of such a system are evident, and Paul and his colleagues are eager to take additional steps to develop it. This summer, they will be doing another test of a lithium SCEPS under the watchful eye of NAIC.
By this time next year, they hope to have completed their analysis and their design for the system, and begin building one which they hope to test in a controlled temperature environment. This will be the first step in what Paul hopes will be a three-year period of testing and development.
“The first year we’re basically going to do a lot of number crunching to make sure we got it right,” he said. “The second year we’re going to built it, and test it at higher temperatures than room temperature – but not the high temperatures of Venus! And in the third year, we’re going to do the high temperature test.”
Ultimately, the concept could be made to function in any number of high and low temperature conditions, allowing for cost-effective long-duration missions in all kinds of extreme environments. These would include Titan, Europa and Enceladus, but also Venus, the Moon, and perhaps the permanently-shadowed regions on Mercury’s poles as well.
Space exploration is always a challenge. Whenever ideas come along that make it possible to peak into more environments, and on a budget to boot, it is time to start researching and developing them!
To learn more about the results of the SCEPS tests, and for more information on the proposed systems, check out the slideshow and audio recording of this week’s FISO seminar. You can also check out the presentation titled “A Combustion-Driven Power Plant For Venus Surface Exploration“, which Paul and Oleson made during the 48th Lunar and Planetary Conference (which ran from March 20th-24th, 2017).
Further Reading: FISO
As you probably know, NASA recently announced plans to send a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. If all goes well, the Europa Clipper will blast off for the world in the 2020s, and orbit the icy moon to discover all its secrets.
And that’s great and all, I like Europa just fine. But you know where I’d really like us to go next? Titan.
Titan, as you probably know, is the largest moon orbiting Saturn. In fact, it’s the second largest moon in the Solar System after Jupiter’s Ganymede. It measures 5,190 kilometers across, almost half the diameter of the Earth. This place is big.
It orbits Saturn every 15 hours and 22 days, and like many large moons in the Solar System, it’s tidally locked to its planet, always showing Saturn one side.
Before NASA’s Voyager spacecraft arrived in 1980, astronomers actually thought that Titan was the biggest moon in the Solar System. But Voyager showed that it actually has a thick atmosphere, that extends well into space, making the true size of the moon hard to judge.
This atmosphere is one of the most interesting features of Titan. In fact, it’s the only moon in the entire Solar System with a significant atmosphere. If you could stand on the surface, you would experience about 1.45 times the atmospheric pressure on Earth. In other words, you wouldn’t need a pressure suit to wander around the surface of Titan.
You would, however, need a coat. Titan is incredibly cold, with an average temperature of almost -180 Celsius. For you Fahrenheit people that’s -292 F. The coldest ground temperature ever measured on Earth is almost -90 C, so way way colder.
You would also need some way to breathe, since Titan’s atmosphere is almost entirely nitrogen, with trace amounts of methane and hydrogen. It’s thick and poisonous, but not murderous, like Venus.
Titan has only been explored a couple of times, and we’ve actually only landed on it once.
The first spacecraft to visit Titan was NASA’s Pioneer 11, which flew past Saturn and its moons in 1979. This flyby was followed by NASA’s Voyager 1 in 1980 and then Voyager 2 in 1981. Voyager 1 was given a special trajectory that would take it as close as possible to Titan to give us a close up view of the world.
Voyager was able to measure its atmosphere, and helped scientists calculate Titan’s size and mass. It also got a hint of darker regions which would later turn out to be oceans of liquid hydrocarbons.
The true age of Titan exploration began with NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which arrived at Saturn on July 4, 2004. Cassini made its first flyby of Titan on October 26, 2004, getting to within 1,200 kilometers or 750 miles of the planet. But this was just the beginning. By the end of its mission later this year, Cassini will have made 125 flybys of Titan, mapping the world in incredible detail.
Cassini saw that Titan actually has a very complicated hydrological system, but instead of liquid water, it has weather of hydrocarbons. The skies are dotted with methane clouds, which can rain and fill oceans of nearly pure methane.
And we know all about this because of Cassini’s Huygen’s lander, which detached from the spacecraft and landed on the surface of Titan on January 14, 2005. Here’s an amazing timelapse that shows the view from Huygens as it passed down through the atmosphere of Titan, and landed on its surface.
Huygens landed on a flat plain, surrounded by “rocks”, frozen globules of water ice. This was lucky, but the probe was also built to float if it happened to land on liquid instead.
It lasted for about 90 minutes on the surface of Titan, sending data back to Earth before it went dark, wrapping up the most distant landing humanity has ever accomplished in the Solar System.
Although we know quite a bit about Titan, there are still so many mysteries. The first big one is the cycle of liquid. Across Titan there are these vast oceans of liquid methane, which evaporate to create methane clouds. These rain, creating mists and even rivers.
Is it volcanic? There are regions of Titan that definitely look like there have been volcanoes recently. Maybe they’re cryovolcanoes, where the tidal interactions with Saturn cause water to well up from beneath crust and erupt onto the surface.
Is there life there? This is perhaps the most intriguing possibility of all. The methane rich system has the precursor chemicals that life on Earth probably used to get started billions of years ago. There’s probably heated regions beneath the surface and liquid water which could sustain life. But there could also be life as we don’t understand it, using methane and ammonia as a solvent instead of water.
To get a better answer to these questions, we’ve got to return to Titan. We’ve got to land, rove around, sail the oceans and swim beneath their waves.
Now you know all about this history of the exploration of Titan. It’s time to look at serious ideas for returning to Titan and exploring it again, especially its oceans.
Planetary scientists have been excited about the exploration of Titan for a while now, and a few preliminary proposals have been suggested, to study the moon from the air, the land, and the seas.
First up, there’s the Titan Saturn System Mission, a mission proposed in 2009, for a late 2020s arrival at Titan. This spacecraft would consist of a lander and a balloon that would float about in the atmosphere, and study the world from above. Over the course of its mission, the balloon would circumnavigate Titan once from an altitude of 10km, taking incredibly high resolution images. The lander would touch down in one of Titan’s oceans and float about on top of the liquid methane, sampling its chemicals.
As we stand right now, this mission is in the preliminary stages, and may never launch.
In 2012, Dr. Jason Barnes and his team from the University of Idaho proposed sending a robotic aircraft to Titan, which would fly around in the atmosphere photographing its surface. Titan is actually one of the best places in the entire Solar System to fly an airplane. It has a thicker atmosphere and lower gravity, and unlike the balloon concept, an airplane is free to go wherever it needs powered by a radioactive thermal generator.
Although the mission would only cost about $750 million or so, NASA hasn’t pushed it beyond the conceptual stage yet.
An even cooler plan would put a boat down in one of Titan’s oceans. In 2012, a team of Spanish engineers presented their idea for how a Titan boat would work, using propellers to put-put about across Titan’s seas. They called their mission the Titan Lake In-Situ Sampling Propelled Explorer, or TALISE.
Propellers are fine, but it turns out you could even have a sailboat on Titan. The methane seas have much less density and viscosity than water, which means that you’d only experience about 26% the friction of Earth. Cassini measured windspeeds of about 3.3 m/s across Titan, which half the average windspeed of Earth. But this would be plenty of wind to power a sail when you consider Titan’s thicker atmosphere.
And here’s my favorite idea. A submarine. This 6-meter vessel would float on Titan’s Kraken Mare sea, studying the chemistry of the oceans, measuring currents and tides, and mapping out the sea floor.
It would be capable of diving down beneath the waves for periods, studying interesting regions up close, and then returning to the surface to communicate its findings back to Earth. This mission is in the conceptual stage right now, but it was recently chosen by NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts Group for further study. If all goes well, the submarine would travel to Titan by 2038 when there’s a good planetary alignment.
Okay? Are you convinced? Let’s go back to Titan. Let’s explore it from the air, crawl around on the surface and dive beneath its waves. It’s one of the most interesting places in the entire Solar System, and we’ve only scratched the surface.
If I’ve done my job right, you’re as excited about a mission to Titan as I am. Let’s go back, let’s sail and submarine around that place. Let me know your thoughts in the comments.