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Can a Bullet Traveling Near the Speed of Sound Find Life on Jupiter's Moon?

U.K. researchers have successfully tested a "penetrator" spacecraft that may one day search for life beneath Europa's surface.

Can a Bullet Traveling Near the Speed of Sound Find Life on Jupiter's Moon?

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the solar system lies a small, unregarded icy moon called Europa. It's a blip near Jupiter in the telescope's view from Earth, but it may be one of the most scientifically interesting places nearby: The theory is that beneath its icy crust is a warm ocean, and swimming in those dark deeps may be life. Genuine alien life. Now a U.K. team has tested one type of spacecraft that could be used to break into Europa's secret sea.

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The vehicle is like no other spaceship you've seen because it's essentially a giant smart bullet designed to smash into Europa's ice at extraordinary speed and break through to the deep water beneath. In a test in Wales, scientists fired their penetrator at a 10-ton block of regular Earth ice to simulate Jupiter's enigmatic moon—and it hit at speed of 340 meters per second. That's just about the speed of sound, over 760 miles an hour.

Spectacularly the penetrator reduced the ice to 10 tons of snow, but its structure was intact as were the electronics contained inside it. In the case of this test the electronics were sensors to measure the experiment itself, but in exploring Europa or any other body in the solar system—relatively inexpensively—the sensors would be a suite of scientific instruments.

There're no immediate plans to fly the craft to Jupiter, but its use is definitely possible. And if this story is ringing a few bells for you then you'll enjoy the fact that Arthur C. Clarke wrote about precisely this sort of system being used to sample Europa in the follow-up to his classic novel 2001: A Space Odyssey—the only thing Clarke got wrong was setting the events in 2010.

[Image: NASA]