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Objective Europa wants to send astronauts on a one-way mission to Jupiter's moons

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September 24, 2013

Artist's impression of the surface of Europa (Image: NASA)

Artist's impression of the surface of Europa (Image: NASA)

Image Gallery (12 images)

We’re used to expendable boosters on space missions, but what about an expendable crew? That is essentially the long-term plan of Objective Europa, a group led by Kristian von Bengtson, founder of Copenhagen Suborbitals, that's contemplating the challenges of sending astronauts to Jupiter's moon Europa to look for life. The only catch is that the trip is one-way with no hope of return at the end of the mission.

Made up of like-minded scientists, architects, designers, and former NASA specialists, including diver Pierre-Yves Cousteau and architect Bjarke Ingels, Objective Europa was set up to answer one question: "Is a crewed mission to Jovian moon Europa possible?"

The work is still at the most preliminary stage and the organizers state that they aren't trying to raise funds. At the moment, they are soliciting ideas and crowdsourcing research to look into the feasibility of a manned mission decades from now. They haven't ruled out a robotic mission, but they've made it quite clear that they want to send astronauts to Europa, even if this means sending them with no chance of ever coming back.

Concept image of a submarine on Europa (Image: Evan Twyford)
Concept image of a submarine on Europa (Image: Evan Twyford)

This is different from the Mars One idea of sending volunteers to the Red Planet as colonists without a return ticket, and paying for their upkeep by featuring the settlers on a reality show. Objective Europa appears to be purely self-sacrifice in the name of science.

For now, Objective Europa is restricting itself to discussing the ethics of the mission and conceptualizing manned submarines for exploring the Europan ocean and subsurface bases inside the ice crust. Once this "Phase I" is passed, the group will move on to prototyping, technology trials and manned tests before going on to detailed mission planning for an expedition that may not take place for another 50 years.

The main reason for this extraordinary project is to look for life elsewhere in the Solar System. Especially after recent findings on Mars, Europa looks to be the most logical candidate for finding life in our Solar System. The group also wants to bring a number of other questions to the public's attention, such as: Are we alone in the universe? What is the value of self-sacrifice? How do we capture the pioneer spirit of previous centuries? But the presence of life on Europa is the big one.

Sketches of exploration machines for Europa (Image: Objective Europa)
Sketches of exploration machines for Europa (Image: Objective Europa)

At first glance, Europa seems as unlikely a place as any in the Solar System to find life. The fourth largest of Jupiter’s moons, its atmosphere is to all intents a hard vacuum at about the same pressure as that of the Moon. The surface temperature drops to −170 °C (103 K, -275°F) and the surface is an endless expanse of ice.

When the first NASA probes flew by in the 1970s, this bleak picture began to change. Europa exhibited a number of suspiciously odd features. For instance, it’s one of the smoothest bodies in the Solar System, criss-crossed with lines and bearing the scars of very few impact craters. It also reflects light much more than most moons with an albedo of 0.24. From all of this, scientists deduce that Europa is tectonically active and, based on estimates of comet impacts, its surface is only about 20 to 180 million years old.

On another moon, this would make it a volcanic hell like it's Jovian stablemate Io, but Europa is covered entirely by ice. This means that something else is going on. Furthermore, Europa has its own very faint magnetic field induced by passing through Jupiter’s gigantic one. This has led scientists to believe that below the ice on Europa’s surface is a salty ocean kept from freezing as the result of heating due to tidal forces.

Two possible versions of Europa's ocean (Image: NASA)

Liquid water is an absolute necessity for life as we know it to exist, and its possible presence on Europa is a very promising sign, though it isn't proof. However, scientists point to life forms known as extremophiles on Earth that can exist in environments that would be fatal to most others. They contend that this means that life could exist in a wider range of temperatures and chemical balances than previously thought. The theory is that if there are volcanic vents on Europa, similar to those in the deep oceans on Earth, they could provide heat and nutrient chemicals to allow at least microbes to live.

Unfortunately, there are also arguments against life being present on Europa. It may be that there isn't really any water, but rather that the ice may extend to the crust and the features seen may be due to “warm” ice circulating. Also the water may be too salty for any life to develop or there may not be enough energy in the right concentrations. Also, the ocean may be 100 km (60 mi) deep. On Earth, this depth would produce a pressure of 9,580 atmospheres, so if Europa does have thermal vents, they may be so deep that the pressure disintegrates any living matter.

If Objective Europa gets off the ground, so to speak, to answer these questions, it will face a number of daunting challenges beside getting someone to go on a one-way mission. Leaving aside the problems of the 600 day passage to Europa that would involve logistics that makes a manned Mars mission look like a row across the pond, Europa itself is a very nasty place.

Sketch of a possible subsurface base on Europa (Image: James Wise)
Sketch of a possible subsurface base on Europa (Image: James Wise)

Along with the extreme cold and airlessness, the moon orbits inside Jupiter's radiation belt, which is about 10 times as strong as Earth's Van Allen radiation belts, and Europa’s tiny magnetic field is no protection. The astronauts would be exposed to 5400 mSv (540 rem) of radiation per day, which is a fatal dose. Also, Europa’s gravity is little more than that of our own Moon, so muscle and bone degradation would be a problem.

Assuming that the explorers could overcome these problems, there’s the question of how to look for signs of life. There is a very remote chance that some parts of the ice crust are only 200 m (650 ft) thick, but it’s more likely to be as much as 30 km (19 mi). Boring through that would be hard enough on Earth, but in pressure suits at the end of an interplanetary supply line, even a couple of hundred meters is a major challenge.

The video below is a teaser for the project.

Source: Objective Europa

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
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31 Comments

This sounds insane!

I can't see these one-way trips ever catching on.

mooseman
25th September, 2013 @ 12:14 am PDT

Honourable scientists in the past put their own lives on the line to prove their own convictions, but here we see the beginnings of a request for possible substitutes to indulge in scientific kamikaze. True honour exists outside of scientific circles. Life is risked in order to prove the scientists wrong.

Threesixty
25th September, 2013 @ 12:55 am PDT

They could send any kind of information from there and nobody on Earth could confirm or reject it for long time.

Jorma
25th September, 2013 @ 01:40 am PDT

I'll go!!!

Ryrydawg
25th September, 2013 @ 01:57 am PDT

If they arrive at Jupiter and find a huge monolith floating in space, and it seems to be full of stars, they should get the hell out of there as fast as they can!

:-)

paulyuk6
25th September, 2013 @ 03:33 am PDT

Sounds like a dead end job to me.

James Chapman
25th September, 2013 @ 04:07 am PDT

"Objective Europa appears to be purely self-sacrifice in the name of science."

Shouldn't this be 'self-sacrificial' as the phrase is being used as an adjective?

Sheldon Cooper
25th September, 2013 @ 04:56 am PDT

I can see the job advertisement: "Wanted intrepid, committed, individuals willing to risk it all to see the stars! Limited term employment good benefits! (In tiny print) Ridiculously poor retirement package."

Where they are going to find enough folks who are terminal cancer patients, geniuses, and suicidal all wrapped up in one is the more important question. Otherwise I fail to see how it could be ethical and practical.

VirtualGathis
25th September, 2013 @ 05:32 am PDT

Why Manned space craft? Why not robots like they do with the moon?

Lynn K. Russell
25th September, 2013 @ 08:32 am PDT

The most important thing about the first (or first several) mission(s) to Europa is to avoid contaminating it with Earth's microbes. This is very hard to do with sterilized hardware; it's beyond ridiculous with manned missions. How are you going to learn about (hypothetical) European microbes when you have already seeded the moon with thousands of species of human borne types?

Of course, that's only the start of the sundry objections to this silly idea.

piperTom
25th September, 2013 @ 09:11 am PDT

Has anyone read "2001" lately....?

Ron Roubaix Callahan
25th September, 2013 @ 09:13 am PDT

I think to sacrifice life to see if life exist in Jupiter's moon is stupid, I save you the trip, there is no life, why don't they take the leap, out of the galaxy with a bigger ship and a crew can grow by having kids training them and so on and on, that will be the ultimate trip.

Manny Albite
25th September, 2013 @ 09:29 am PDT

Everyone likes to play it safe. We are being educated and retrained by our society standards to not be risk takers. I would go to Mars or Europa. Sign me up. Its not a sacrifice at all, I would be an explorer, seeing whats out there. If we didnt dare to see whats beyond what we know, we wouldnt have America, we wouldnt have electricity, cell phones, computers, etc. Certainly risks need to be assessed but not to not do something because its risky is to not really live.

yinfu99
25th September, 2013 @ 09:39 am PDT

@paulyuk6 XD

But really... This sounds like the stupidest idea I've ever heard of in a LOOOOOONG time. If it does go through, AT LEAST send a rover beforehand, to test for conditions even remotely feasible for sustaning life.

KRC1023
25th September, 2013 @ 09:57 am PDT

They better send plenty of reading material, good looking women, and Chivas Regal. Money is not going to do much for you out there.

Astronaut Kamikaze, new word: astrokaze.

flylowguy
25th September, 2013 @ 10:02 am PDT

Am I missing something? I understand the concerns about contamination, but I am at a loss as to why it would have to be a one way mission. If small devices can be charged using radiant energy from the environment, why couldn't a vehicle do so as well? Electromagnetic radiation is available in space in virtually unlimited amounts. Power could be collected and stored in ultracapacitors integral to the vehicles structure. Propulsion in any direction could be accomplished by on board lasers. On board food and air supplies could be provided by hydroponics and recycling. Replacement parts, even space suits could be manufactured on board using 3D printers provided the necessary quantities of raw materials could be kept to a minimum or could be extracted from asteroids during the course of the journey.

Robert Fallin
25th September, 2013 @ 10:09 am PDT

Considering that in a couple decades there will be 2 billion more of us Earth, and our planet will be a living hell because of too many people, maybe one one way ticket away from Hell might be worth it.

Nelson Hyde Chick
25th September, 2013 @ 10:37 am PDT

Earth's explorers braved hardships, but there was always faith in ultimate survival - food and water could be found, one could breath air for Pete's sake. There is no comparison here. At the same time, if I knew my life clock was running down due to terminal illness, I'd go in a heartbeat.

Create a base/outpost for further exploration of the system. Provide the wherewithal to scout-out more of Jupiter's moons. Do SOMEthing off-planet. We're just sitting here, messing with one-another at this point...

Guy DeWardener
25th September, 2013 @ 10:51 am PDT

Risking lives is one thing. Giving them up is another. Are our scientists' minds so worthless that we're willing to throw them away on the chance we might learn something machines can't show us?

If this mission were to go through, it's primary objective should be a permanent base and long-term survival on the moon (or under its surface to help block the rads), with the search for life and all other interests to become secondary.

dandrews1138
25th September, 2013 @ 12:59 pm PDT

Read /Titan/ by Stephen Baxter for a visceral understanding of what a mission like this might feel like.

Marco McClean
25th September, 2013 @ 02:35 pm PDT

Would a manned mission be far more likely to contaminate Europa with Earth microbes?

Joshua Smallwood
25th September, 2013 @ 04:19 pm PDT

If this mission is 50 years away, we should have robots good enough to do this job.

warren52nz
25th September, 2013 @ 05:17 pm PDT

Wasn't this planet the topic of 1984 movie 2010?

Sequel to 2001?

If suicide mission, send in some probes to send data back to Earth

Or allow Orbital Hab over planet for crew to acess.

Make 2 way trip with Orbital Hab modules attached to Main ship modules

Stephen N Russell
25th September, 2013 @ 05:48 pm PDT

If Congress would volunteer - I'd say that is real progress!

donwine
25th September, 2013 @ 10:57 pm PDT

"All these worlds are yours, except Europa. Attempt no landings there."

Gregg Eshelman
25th September, 2013 @ 11:33 pm PDT

They will never have a problem finding people willing to go on these one way missions, and im not talking some homeless bum either, highly qualified people that are educated and have skills. The reasons why will be varied and personal, but rest assured with the huge population that earth has, finding a handful of highly qualified people willing to do it, won't be hard.....

Look at how many people applied for the Mars One. Alot. From pretty much every country.

I don't see any moral problems here at all, if people want to go its their choice. We don't have any problem sending people into war knowing they could die, often for stupid reasons. This is the same, only for good scientific reasons, although this is the first time iv heard about a reality show in conjunction with the mars mission.

Nathaneal Blemings
26th September, 2013 @ 11:17 pm PDT

That's as Fascist as it can get, without the Swastikas.

I can see a lot of one-way "scientific missions" being set up, for the disposal of the Social Darwinist's list of unwanted individuals.

That way, only cowardly TV-zombies will remain, that will work, vote, and watch TV...

But Gulags cost a lot less.

Edgar Castelo
26th September, 2013 @ 11:32 pm PDT

"They could send any kind of information from there and nobody on Earth could confirm or reject it for long time.

Jorma

25th September, 2013 @ 01:40 am PDT"

Something tells me telescopes will determine Europa is not a a lush tropical rain forest inhabited by scantly clad Amazon women. The likely determination will be the colonists suffered from oxygen deprivation.

On the matter of radiation, yes, you can dig in like moles, and live in a cold pitch black world,. .. OR, get the thumb out and focus more resources in creating shield technology.

Doesn't have to be see-through, and it is not expected to deflect asteroids (though that would be handy)

I'm talking some kind of funky material with a quantum property of eating gamma radiation, or transforming it into a more manageable particle that can then be deflected by a piece of al-foil (like beta, or photons).

Then you'd be cooking with gas. Because that technology alone would remove the major hurdle humanity has from colonizing Mars and the Moon (other then bone degradation, but this puzzle I feel will be cracked in the near future)

Nairda
26th September, 2013 @ 11:40 pm PDT

....maybe once you are are under the influence of Jupiter's gravity there can be no escaping it.......hence the one way trip...........

Paul Ricketts
29th September, 2013 @ 11:50 am PDT

There is no requirement for a one way certain death ticket, suspended animation gives a 90% chance of revival for pigs, dogs have been frozen and revived. It is just when that person will get to come back.

L1ma
1st October, 2013 @ 03:56 am PDT

The theories are there for the return trip, as well as the concepts. We have the resources to test them before we go. Given the ice, a steam rocket would quite possibly give a return trip.

Luddite
1st October, 2013 @ 12:28 pm PDT
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