NASA's Antarctic search for alien life

Media release

19 November 2019

A NASA team is travelling with the Australian Antarctic Program to test an under-ice robot that could one day search for extra-terrestrial life on an icy Jupiter moon.

NASA has its sights set on flying to Jupiter within a decade, to better understand the planet and to investigate Europa, one of the Jupiter’s more than 60 moons.

The robot testing will be one of two NASA projects conducted with the Australian Antarctic Program this summer, underlining the key role we play in international research from climate studies to the protection of wildlife.

NASA’s recently announced Operation IceBridge will be the largest survey ever undertaken of the world’s polar regions.

Speaking at the Australian Antarctic Division headquarters in Hobart today, NASA scientist Dr Kevin Hand, said that NASA’s Galileo mission to Jupiter in the late 1990s investigated the planet’s moons including Europa.

“They found strong evidence there was a salty ocean beneath Europa’s thick icy crust, as well as a rocky sea floor,” Dr Hand from the agencies Jet Propulsion Laboratory said.

“This salty ocean could hold more than twice as much water as Earth and have all the right ingredients to support simple life organisms.”

Not only does the robot have the challenge of travelling over six million kilometres in getting to Europa, but it must also drill through a 10-20 kilometre ice crust before it can be deployed.

Tests have already been conducted in the Arctic and Alaska, but this will be the first Antarctic trial.

A team of four will spend three weeks at Australia’s Casey research station, trialling the robotic under-sea systems, which include two independent wheels that allow it to manoeuvre along the under-side of the ice.

NASA plans to launch the Europa Clipper mission in 2025 and the spacecraft is expected to take several years to reach its destination. 

If found suitable, the under-ice robot being tested in Antarctica this summer, will be considered for a future mission to the planet.  

Pictures and vision at https://cloudstor.aarnet.edu.au/plus/s/TXkBqx2kLci5uIH

Minister for the Environment