Finding life on Europa
Cracking open the icy world requires someone intelligent at the helm
We often talk about finding life on other planets, but what about on moons? Specifically, NASA’s interest lies in Europa, Jupiter’s smallest Galilean satellite. Europa has a subsurface ocean – and where there’s water, there’s possibly life.
“Before the 1970s,” Chien explains, “scientists thought that life could only exist in the presence of sunlight, where you could have photosynthesis. Interestingly enough, they turned out to be wrong.” Even on Earth, the ocean bottom harbours life inside black smokers, a type of hydrothermal vent that Chien says may be where our planet’s life initially began.
On Europa, though, the search has been difficult. The moon falls within Jupiter’s radiation belt, which can severely disrupt any spacecraft’s electronics and reset them. To get the images researchers need, Chien says any spacecraft NASA sends “has to be prepared to be reset up to five times per flyby. So we need AI to dynamically recover as quickly as possible from those resets in order to conduct our science mission.”
But there’s more, Chien says: “We want to land on Europa.” Europa Lander is a mission concept that, if launched, would look for organic matter on the moon’s surface. And it’s a project, he says, NASA can’t execute without AI. “We want to go to Europa, we want to land on this icy surface… and we want to melt through this icy crust.” Artificial intelligence would direct this work, which Chien explains would take about one year. Once NASA cracks through, an AI-programmed submersible would then search for hydrothermal vents and the fine gradients that show where they might exist.
“As an AI person, what could be more exciting than finding life and knowing that AI was essential to that?” Chien asks. There is currently a funding shortfall, though – of the $19.9 billion NASA has for 2019, Europa Lander’s budget is nil.
An artist’s rendering of the proposed AIcontrolled Europa Lander