Find­ing life on Europa

Crack­ing open the icy world re­quires some­one in­tel­li­gent at the helm

Sky at Night Magazine - - NASA’S PIONEERING - A de­pic­tion of Europa’s icy sur­face, which the craft would an­a­lyse

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

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