Scientists are now preparing for a mission to explore Jupiter’s Moon Europa by drilling into several of Antarctica’s lakes. Currently, Russia is only around 50 meters from the surface of Lake Vostok which has been ice covered and sealed off for millions of years.
A liquid ocean lying underneath a thick ice cover on a moon in our solar system? It’s name is Europa and it is only one of several moons now known to hold a large liquid ocean underneath a thick ice cover. The moon is one of Jupiter’s main moons and is believed to be the easiest one out of three to explore that contain liquid oceans underneath their surfaces in the Jupiter system. The other two are Ganymede and Callisto but both of these moons have a thicker crust covering their oceans and would pose an almost impossible task of reaching them with our current level of technology. Europa will still pose huge obstacles for us to reach its liquid ocean but both scientists and researchers are certain that with our current technology we should be able to do so.
In the past several weeks, both NASA and ESA have been discussing plans on developing a mission to explore Europa and its buried ocean in the next 20+ years. Being discussed is the main question of: Should we just land a probe and explore the surface ice of Europa or should we actually attempt to drill down into the ice cap and explore the liquid ocean? Each scenario holds huge challenges for us to overcome with the second one being the most ambitious and daring. Some scientists think that we would be able to gather enough information by just landing a probe and exploring the surface ice since it appears that Europa’s ice cover regularly cracks and reshapes itself by warmer waters pushing up to the surface. Other scientists are pushing for an exploration of the liquid ocean by drilling down into the ice cap to guarantee better results including whether there is life or ever was life in the ocean on Europa.
Fortunately for the scientists dealing with the decisions involving the Europa Mission, we can get a glimpse of some of the challenges that will be present by exploring the lakes in Antarctica that have been buried by a thick ice cap for millions of years. Currently, scientists know of approximately 140 sub glacial lakes on the continent of Antarctica which are all ice covered and have been for many millions of years. Russia has been drilling Lake Vostok which happens to be the largest lake on the Antarctican continent for many years now but due to environmental pressures was forced to stop about 50 meters above the surface of the lake. Many scientists are worried about bacterial contamination from the drills getting into the lake’s water and have managed to cease all drilling until methods can be demonstrated to prevent this from happening.