NASA proposes nuclear ‘tunnelbot’ to search for alien life

Europa may be the most likely place to host alien life. Beneath its surface is a salty ocean, warmed by the play of gravity on the moon’s metal core. But how do you peer through sheet ice? You melt your way down, with a nuclear-powered robot. At least that’s the proposal put to the American … Continue reading “NASA proposes nuclear ‘tunnelbot’ to search for alien life”

Europa may be the most likely place to host alien life. Beneath its surface is a salty ocean, warmed by the play of gravity on the moon’s metal core. But how do you peer through sheet ice?

You melt your way down, with a nuclear-powered robot.

At least that’s the proposal put to the American Geophysical Union meeting in Washington DC this week.

NASA’s Glenn Research center’s multidisciplinary COMPASS team was established to develop technology to overcome the challenges of space exploration.

Europa poses a big one.

The ice that covers this moon of Jupiter could be anywhere between 2 and 30km thick.

But, beneath, could be life.

And finding it will throw open our understanding of how common life is in our universe, how resilient it is — and how it arises.


Planetary scientists aren’t even certain Europa has an ocean. But all the signs indicate it has. The most enticing of these are the plumes of liquid-water which periodically erupt from its surface.

The COMPASS team has completed a concept study on the technologies capable of piercing the ice with a suite of sensors and sending the data it collects back to Earth.

The best option, they argue, is a nuclear-powered ‘tunnelbot’.

Nuclear power packs the most energy into a small space.

And it doesn’t even need to be built into a nuclear reactor — though that was one of the concept designs. In its simplest form, radioactive ‘bricks’ would simply radiate a heat source in front of a tube-shaped probe which then gradually sinks as the ice beneath turns to slush.

The power of such nuclear fuel cells have been amply demonstrated by the likes of Voyager 1 and 2, still sending back signals as they cross into interstellar space some 40 years after they were launched.


The nuclear ‘tunnelbot’ would deploy from a lander with a fiber-optic string of data ‘repeaters’ unfurling as it sinks.

Any such a Europa ‘tunnelbot’ would be relatively large. And risky to launch.

“We didn’t worry about how our tunnelbot would make it to Europa or get deployed into the ice,” says University of Illinois at Chicago associate professor Andrew Dombard. “We just assumed it could get there and we focused on how it would work during descent to the ocean.”

Which is the purpose of their mission. Whether or not such a nuclear-powered ‘tunnelbot’ is built and deployed is the next step. But the decision will be based upon an informed study of what it would take to take a peek under Europa’s ice.

Sending a probe to Europa is one of NASA’s major ambitions for the coming decades. But getting the mission past an increasingly skeptical US Congress may not be easy.


The project’s chief advocate was Texas Republican John Culberson, who chaired the subcommittee that funds NASA. The NASA study which produced the nuclear-powered ‘tunnelbot’ is a result of his efforts.

But he lost his seat at the recent midterm elections.

And President Donald Trump’s most recent budget states he has no intention of funding an Europa lander.

Some experts express the fear such an attempt would be a ‘bridge too far’: we simply don’t know enough about the icy moon, yet.

“It’s a mission that came out of Congress as opposed to a mission that came out of the science,” says The Planetary Society’s Emily Lakdawalla.

Others argue the long lead-up time for such ambitious missions means now is the time to start working towards the project.

And we’re set to learn more about the mysterious moon anyway.

The Europa Clipper mission — a space probe designed to orbit the moon — has received initial funding. Its goal is to circle as low as 25km for up to three years, mapping Europa’s icy surface and gleaning what it can about chemicals being spewed out in its plumes.

It’s hoped the Clipper will be ready for launch in 2022. It will take six years for the probe to reach Jupiter and establish itself in orbit around Europa.

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Mars ‘terror,’ future Moon missions and an epic journey to the Sun: 2018’s year in space

2018 has been a busy year for space exploration. Here are some of the highlights:


NASA’s Mars InSight Lander reached the Red Planet on Nov. 26 after an epic journey of more than 300-million miles that lasted six months. The final stage of its descent, however, was fraught with difficulty – NASA engineers characterize landing on Mars as “seven minutes of terror.”

Safely settled on the surface of the planet, sensors on the Lander recently captured the first-ever “sounds” of Martian wind. The probe also used a camera on its robotic arm, to take its first Mars selfie.


The InSight mission, which is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, will provide scientists with a wealth of data. By studying Mars’ deep interior, the mission is expected to provide valuable information on the formation of rocky worlds, including Earth.

Mars looms ever larger in America’s space future.

In November, NASA announced that it has selected the location where its Mars 2020 Rover will land on the Red Planet. The rover is expected to reach the Martian surface on Feb. 18, 2021.

NASA’s long-term goal is to send a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s. However, former astronaut Buzz Aldrin thinks that a slightly later target date of 2040 is more realistic. In an interview in 2016, the Gemini 12 and Apollo 11 astronaut told Fox News that by 2040, astronauts could have visited Mars’ moon Phobos, which could serve as a sort of stepping stone to the Red Planet.


NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover found organic molecules on Mars, the space agency revealed in a major announcement in June.

The molecules, which were found in rocks from an ancient lake bed, provide fresh insight into the Red Planet, according to scientists. The rocks are billions of years old, NASA said.

While NASA went to great lengths to explain that it has not discovered life on Mars, the organic molecules could provide vital clues.


“Organic compounds are fundamental to our search for life,” said Paul Mahaffy, director of the Solar System Exploration Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Goddard, Md.

Described as the most technologically advanced rover ever built, Curiosity launched on Nov. 26, 2011. The rover landed on Mars' Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012, with the goal of determining whether Mars was ever able to support microbial life.


NASA’s OSIRIS-REx, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, reached its orbit at asteroid Bennu on Dec. 3 after traveling more than 1 billion miles through space. The spacecraft launched in September 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The asteroid may provide answers to the origin of our solar system, according to NASA.

OSIRIS-REx will spend almost a year surveying the space rock from orbit. The probe is scheduled to briefly touch the asteroid with a robotic arm in July 2020 and retrieve a sample that will be returned to Earth in September 2023.


Scientists recently made a fascinating discovery on the asteroid. They analyzed data from the probe and identified water locked inside the asteroid’s clay, the space agency announced. The spacecraft’s two spectrometers revealed the presence of “hydroxyls,” which are molecules containing oxygen and hydrogen atoms bonded together.

Other countries are also ramping up their efforts to study asteroids. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA) Hayabusa 2 spacecraft recently lowered two small rovers onto a distant asteroid. Hayabusa 2 arrived at Ryugu on June 27, 2018, when the asteroid was almost 170 million miles from Earth. The spacecraft, which traveled almost 2 billion miles to reach the space rock, is expected to leave Ryugu at the end of 2019 and return to Earth around the end of 2020.


On Oct. 11, NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin made a dramatic escape after their Soyuz booster rocket failed just two minutes after launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The spacecraft was about 30 miles above Earth’s surface when the crew was forced to make a dangerous “ballistic re-entry” into Earth’s atmosphere. After the successful deployment of its parachute, the rescue capsule landed safely in the steppes of Kazakhstan about 30 minutes after the rocket failure.

A Russian investigation attributed the failure to a sensor that was damaged during the rocket's final assembly.


Less than two months later, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft carrying three astronauts, including one American, successfully docked with the International Space Station. The launch from Kazakhstan was the first successful manned mission to the space lab since the aborted Soyuz launch.

The Soyuz spacecraft is currently the only vehicle that can ferry crews to the space station, but Russia stands to lose that monopoly in the coming years with the arrival of SpaceX's Dragon and Boeing's Starliner crew capsules.


The leak was spotted on Aug. 30 in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft attached to the orbiting space lab. The crew quickly located and sealed the tiny hole that created a slight loss of pressure, and space officials said the station has remained safe to operate.

The capsule leak caused a flap between the U.S. and Russian space agencies. Russian space chief Dmitry Rogozin observed that the hole could have been drilled during manufacturing — or in orbit. The space station's commander at the time flatly denied any wrongdoing by himself or his crew.


The Russian space chief has since backpedaled on his statement, saying that he never pointed the finger at U.S. astronauts and blaming the media for twisting his statement.

Rogozin said recently that the Russian official probe is ongoing. During a grueling spacewalk in December, Russian cosmonauts took samples of the black epoxy sealant protruding from the hole and put insulation over the area. Roscosmos will discuss the probe findings with NASA and other space station partners, according to Rogozin.


In November, NASA announced that Lockheed Martin and eight other companies will compete for $2.6 billion worth of contracts to help take American astronauts back to the Moon and Mars.

In addition to Lockheed, which built the Mars InSight lander, NASA's commercial partners include Astrobotic Technology, Deep Space System, Draper, Firefly, Intuitive Machines, Masten Space Systems, Moon Express and Orbit Beyond.

The contracts could be worth as much as $2.6 billion over a span of 10 years and flights could start as soon as next year, officials said. The original list included more than 30 companies vying for the bids, including Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin.


President Donald Trump wants U.S. astronauts to return to the Moon as a foundation for future Mars missions.

The last time a human set foot on the Moon was during the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972. Only 12 men, all Americans, have set foot on the Moon.

NASA’s goal is also to send to manned missions into space from U.S. soil during the coming years. Since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, the U.S. has been relying on Russian Soyuz rockets, launched from Kazakhstan, to get astronauts to the ISS.

In August, NASA also named nine “American hero” astronauts that will crew the test flights and first space station resupply missions on SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft.


NASA’s Parker Solar Probe blasted off on its odyssey from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket in the early hours of Aug. 12, 2018.

The $1.5 billion mission will take humanity closer to the Sun than ever before. Parker is the first spacecraft to fly through the Sun’s corona, the outermost part of the star’s atmosphere

To withstand the heat of nearly 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, the probe is protected by a special 4.5-inch-thick carbon-composite shield.


Parker will face “brutal” heat and radiation during the epic journey that will take it to within 3.83 million miles of the Sun’s surface, according to the space agency. This is seven times closer than the previous closest spacecraft, Helios 2, which came within 27 million miles of the Sun in 1976.

Harnessing Venus’ gravity, Parker will complete seven flybys over seven years to gradually bring its orbit closer and closer to the Sun. On its closest approach in 2024, the probe will be traveling at approximately 430,000 mph, setting a new speed record for a manmade object.

The Sun’s corona, which can be seen during a total solar eclipse, is usually hidden by the bright light of the star’s surface. The probe, named after pioneering solar physicist Dr. Eugene Parker, will provide a wealth of invaluable scientific data.

Scientists expect to shed new light on the Sun’s potential to disrupt satellites and spacecraft, as well as electronics and communications on Earth.

In November, the probe snapped a stunning picture of the Sun’s atmosphere.


In March, scientists announced the discovery of 15 new planets, including a “super-Earth” that may have liquid water on its surface.

The planets are orbiting small, cool stars near our solar system, known as “Red Dwarfs.”

One of the brightest Red Dwarfs, K2-155, has three “super-Earths,” one of which, K2-155d, could be within the star’s habitable zone. K2-155d, which has a radius 1.6 times that of Earth, may harbor liquid water, according to three-dimensional global climate simulations.

K2-155 is about 200 light-years from Earth. A light-year, which measures distance in space, equals 6 trillion miles.


In February, revealed the discovery, for the first time, of planets in galaxies beyond the Milky Way.

Using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, a team of astrophysicists from the University of Oklahoma identified the extragalactic planets about 3.8 billion light-years away. The space observatory helped scientists find about 2,000 objects with comparable mass to the Moon and Jupiter.

The Oklahoma University team used a technique called microlensing, which identifies the gravitational signature of planets orbiting extremely distant stars.


Oumuamua, the first interstellar object ever spotted in our solar system, also garnered plenty of attention in 2018. NASA said that Oumuamua is a "metallic or rocky object," while a study from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics speculated that it could be a “lightsail” sent from an ancient civilization.

Fox News’ Chris Ciaccia, Jennifer Earl, Amy Lieu and the Associated Press contributed to this article. Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers

Can Venus teach us to take climate change seriously?

If human-induced climate change continues unchecked, 10 percent of the U.S. economy could evaporate by 2100, a 1,656-page federal report the White House slipped out on Black Friday (Nov. 23) warned — but a nearby world has an even hotter climate problem than ours, and scientists say we could learn some valuable lessons from it.

That world is Venus, Earth's "evil twin," which was once nice enough — until something went wrong and the atmosphere began trapping a little too much heat. Scientists aren't positive precisely how events played out, but the runaway greenhouse effect that resulted is beyond debate: Venus now clocks in at a staggering 880 degrees Fahrenheit (471 degrees Celsius).

"I think Venus is an important warning: Greenhouse atmospheres are not theoretical," Ellen Stofan, director of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum and former chief scientist at NASA, told And in fact, Venus has already warned us about a climate threat — Stofan said that it was studying our neighbor that prompted scientists to look for an ozone hole here on Earth. They found it, and in perhaps the only veritable climate success, international agreements have cut production of the compounds that eat away at ozone. [Japan at Venus: Photos from the Akatsuki Spacecraft's Mission]

Much of the appeal of Venus comes from the fact that despite its horrifying modern appearance, it's actually really similar to Earth. "Picture a planet that's just like Earth but it's a little hotter because it's a little closer to the sun — and that would be Venus," David Grinspoon, a planetary scientist and astrobiologist at the Planetary Science Institute, told

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  • Along with Mars, these planets form a trio of worlds that began with comparable sizes, materials and temperatures — until suddenly, they were very different. Once upon a time, Venus, like Earth today, was covered in water, perhaps even habitable. Then, gradually, something fell out of whack. "The basic mechanism is very simple: Everybody knows that if you heat up water you make steam," Grinspoon said. And water vapor is a powerful greenhouse gas, trapping still more heat. "There's nothing to really stop it until the oceans fully evaporate." (Today, Venus' atmosphere is almost entirely carbon dioxide; radiation from the sun likely broke up the water vapor, letting it escape into space.)

    The divergent paths of Earth and its two neighbors pose an existential dilemma more powerful even than anthropogenic climate change: Humans or no, Earth's cozy environment won't last forever, either. "We think of habitability like, 'Oh, you have a habitable planet and it just stays that way,'" Stofan said. "Habitability can be very transient in a planet's history." Of the three, Earth's habitability window has lasted the longest, and Venus' was probably shorter than Mars, but scientists aren't yet sure by just how much, she added.

    At a strictly intellectual level, data from Venus and Mars about how a planet and its atmosphere affect each other can be more intriguing than terrestrial data. "For a geologist, Venus is such a great planet because you have geology and you have the atmosphere and they're interacting with each other in a really interesting way without the mess of the biosphere," Stofan said. "It's kind of like a pure planet, which for a geologist is really fun."

    But while Earth's biosphere may be intellectually annoying, we're all awfully fond of it, and that's a powerful reason to care about climates on other worlds. "It's no longer just a luxury because we're curious," Grinspoon said. "It's become an essential survival tool for us now."

    Climate scientists are the first to tell you they want more data, more models, more to dig their teeth into. Some types of climate information does go back millennia, like the details trapped in columns of sediment that scientists can pull from the ocean floor, but climate data is skewed heavily toward modern years. [Amazing Venus Photos by ESA's Venus Express]

    So doubling the number of planets you're looking at — even with limited data — makes a difference. "[Venus is] a laboratory for understanding climate physics and climate change on an Earth-like planet," Grinspoon said. "You can't learn everything you need to know about climate change on Earth by only studying Earth."

    And unlike climate here on Earth, the same interactions on Venus don't have the kind of emotional drama attached to them. That means that Venus doesn't just offer new information — it also offers a new way of talking about climate, even with those who have taken an ideological stand against findings here on Earth.

    "I've had some conversations with people in that camp that have been fruitful because I've used the example of Venus," Grinspoon said. "It allows you to sort of reframe the question — you're not just talking about policy choices on Earth. … It's not a cure-all for that difficult conversation, but I do think it can help."

    Whatever humans do or do not choose to do about Earth's climate, someday countless years from now, as the sun swells in its old age, our world will travel the same path as Venus, with the oceans evaporating away into a runaway greenhouse world. By then, climate won't be a problem for any of us, but it's still a poignant reminder of what science can tell us about the world.

    "I'm not saying, 'Oh, that's about to happen to Earth,'" Grinspoon said. "But the overall lesson still stands that climate stability is not something you can take for granted."

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