Tuesday, February 28, 2012
To see if life does lurk beneath the frigid crust of one of Saturn’s moons, scientists are developing a powerful drill that can melt and bore its way down to the moon’s icy depths.
Giant jets of water ice have been seen spewing into space from cryovolcanoes on Enceladus, Saturn’s sixth largest moon. When NASA’s Cassini spacecraft flew through these icy fountains, the probe detected organic compounds that hinted at the possibility of life.
But the problem with investigating cryovolcanoes for alien life is that landing directly on them is too risky. Furthermore, any potential traces of life could be destroyed during their launch from the fissures and subsequent exposure to the hostile conditions of space.
Instead, researchers are envisioning ways to dig into the icy crust of Enceladus to look for signs of life in the water that is thought to lurk beneath the moon’s surface, before the icy fountains burst upward.
The concept is to establish a base station that is a safe distance from a cryovolcano on the surface of Enceladus. This base station would power a probe dubbed IceMole, which is designed to melt and drill its way down to a depth of 330 to 660 feet (100 to 200 meters) at speeds of about 3 feet (1 meter) per hour.
IceMole is a rectangular box about 6 inches by 6 inches by 47 inches (15 centimeters by 15 centimeters by 120 centimeters) in size. Its square head holds 12 separate heaters that can reach up to 77 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius).
By varying the amount of heat radiating from each of the heaters, IceMole can manipulate where the ice in front of it melts, enabling the probe to gradually change direction as needed. A screw protruding from its square head allows IceMole to penetrate mud if needed, and can suck in samples for the probe to analyze with onboard instruments.
Full article: http://www.space.com … ladus-ice-drill.html