NASA is currently accepting ideas for a mission to Europa — the moon voted most likely to harbour alien life. But thanks to recent budget cuts, it can only consider the most affordable solutions. The fine minds at Draper Labs may have just come up with the answer.
Here's how it would work: A small cubesat would park itself in Europa's orbit. From there, it would take gravitational measurement of the surface to locate areas of interest — such as liquid water — and then eject a flotilla of even tinier ChipSats to land and take close observations and samples on the surface.
From the Draper press release:
Draper envisions the spacecraft as being approximately three feet long. The high accuracy, cold atom inertial sensors would enable advanced detection capability in a small, low-cost package. Draper is also developing cold atom inertial sensors for other applications.
Gravity measurements today are generally taken by two spacecraft flying near a planetary body. As the body's gravitational forces pull on them, the relative drift between the two spacecraft is measured. These measurements are then used to map the gravitational field of the planetary body's surface, which can be used to look for water and other items of interest that inform planning for future missions that may take place years later.
Draper is working with Mason Peck, an engineering professor at Cornell University, to study the viability of using ChipSats, which have not been used for planetary surface exploration, but may be well suited for the task as their lack of moving parts may make them highly capable of surviving impact on a planetary surface. The low cost of ChipSats could also enable NASA to use a large batch, reducing the consequences of losing some upon impact.
Back on June 5, NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program announced that it had awarded Draper a $100,000 contract to study the concept.
Images: Draper Labs