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NASA shows off new concept probe for detecting extraterrestrial or ‘alien’ life

Astrobiologists are exploring the possibility of alien life within our solar system, speculating that hidden oceans beneath the icy crusts of moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn may harbor life forms.

While Mars is accessible to exploration by rovers and landers, these distant water worlds remain beyond our reach. To change this, researchers recently collaborated to design a groundbreaking mission using a proposed probe called a Cryobot.

The Cryobot is designed as a cylindrical robot capable of heating ice to drill through it, providing access to the liquid water oceans below.

A February workshop held at the California Institute of Technology gathered over 40 researchers to refine the technological concept.

The participants delved into the necessary power, thermal, mobility, and communication systems for such a mission, aiming to overcome the challenges posed by these mysterious oceans.

Scientists take the prospect of extraterrestrial life seriously, focusing on places in our solar system where liquid water is likely to exist.

The Cryobot concept involves a lander deploying a cylindrical probe to break through the icy surface using hot-water drilling. The Cryobot would have a 10-kilowatt nuclear power system, protected within a structure to withstand the deep ocean’s high pressure.

To address potential hazards, the workshop participants highlighted the need to demonstrate hazard mitigation systems as a priority for future work on the concept.

They also identified the necessity of a communication link between the Cryobot and a surface lander, exploring options such as radio, acoustic, and magnetic transceivers, as movements in the ice shelf could disrupt a physical connection.

Jupiter’s moon, Europa, and Saturn’s moon, Enceladus, are prime targets for astrobiologists, with NASA and ESA planning missions to explore these intriguing celestial bodies.

NASA’s Europa Clipper, set to launch in October 2024, will inform the design of a Cryobot probe, while the Enceladus Orbilander aims to investigate signs of potential life in the subsurface ocean.

Scientists have recently discovered phosphorus, a key ingredient for life, emanating from Enceladus, heightening the interest in exploring these alien oceans.

Although it will be years before a probe touches down on these icy moons, the recent workshop participants affirm that the Cryobot mission concept remains scientifically compelling and is the most plausible near-term approach to directly search for life in situ on an ocean world, according to NASA.

The prospect of exploring alien oceans is becoming a tangible reality as technology advances and missions to these distant moons are planned.

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