Drilling into Icy Moon Oceans
1 July 2022 | 10:14 am

Drilling into Icy Moon Oceans

While we talk often about subsurface oceans in places like Europa, the mechanisms for getting through layers of ice remain problematic. We’ll need a lot of data through missions like Europa Clipper and JUICE just to make the call on how thick Europa’s ice is before determining which ice penetration technology is feasible. But it’s exciting to see how much preliminary work is going into the issue, because the day will come when one or another icy moon yields the secrets of its ocean to a surface lander.

By way of comparison, the thickest ice sheet on Earth is said to reach close to 5,000 meters. This is at the Astrolabe Subglacial Basin, which lies at the southern end of Antarctica’s Adélie Coast. Here we have glacial ice covering continental crust, as opposed to ice atop an ocean (although there appears to be an actively circulating groundwater system, which has been recently mapped in West Antarctica). The deepest bore into this ice has been 2,152 meters, a 63 hour continuous drilling session that will one day be dwarfed by whatever ice-penetrating technologies we take to Europa.

Consider the challenge. We may, on Europa, be dealing with an ice sheet up to 25 kilometers thick – figuring out just how thick it actually is may take decades if the above missions get ambiguous results. In any case, we will need hardware that can operate at cryogenic temperatures in a hard vacuum, with radiation shielding adequate to the Jovian surface environment. The lander, after all, remains on the surface to sustain communications with the Earth.

Moreover, we need a system that is reliable, meaning one that can work its way around problems it finds in the ice as it moves downward. Here again we need ice profiles that can be developed by future missions. We do know the ice we encounter will contain salts, sulfuric acids and other materials whose composition is currently unknown. And we will surely have to cope with liquid water ‘pockets’ on the way down, as well as the fact that the ice may be brittle near the surface and warmer at greater depths.

SESAME Program Targets Europan Ice

NASA’s SESAME program at Glenn Research Center, which coordinates work from a number of researchers, is doing vital early work on all these problems. On its website, the agency has listed a number of assumptions and constraints for a lander/ice penetrator mission, including the ability to reach up to 15 kilometers within three years (assuming we learn that the ice isn’t thicker than this). For preliminary study, a total system mass of less than 200 kg is assumed, and the overall penetration system must be able to survive three years of operations in this hostile environment.

So far this program is Europa-specific, the acronym translating to Scientific Exploration Subsurface Access Mechanism for Europa. The idea is to identify which penetration systems can reach liquid water. It’s early days for thinking about penetrating Europa and other icy moon oceans, but you have to begin somewhere, and SESAME is about figuring out which approach is most likely to work and developing prototype hardware.

SESAME is dealing with proposals from a number of sources. Johns Hopkins, for example, will be testing communication tether designs and analyzing problems with RF communications. Stone Aerospace is studying a closed-cycle hot water drilling technology running on a fission reactor. Georgia Tech is contributing data from projects in Antarctica and studying a subsurface access drill design, hoping to get it up to TRL 4. Honeybee Robotics is focused on a “hybrid, thermomechanical drill system combining thermal (melting) and mechanical (cutting) penetration approaches.”

Image: A preliminary VERNE design from Georgia Tech showing conceptual component layout. Credit: Georgia Tech.

We’re pretty far down on the TRL scale (standing for Technology Readiness Level), which goes from 1 to 9, or from back of the cocktail lounge napkin drawings up to tested flight-ready hardware. Well, I shouldn’t be so cavalier about TRL 1, which NASA defines as “scientific research is beginning and those results are being translated into future research and development.” The real point is that it’s a long haul from TRL 1 to TRL 9, and the nitty gritty work is occurring now for missions we haven’t designed yet, but which will one day take us to an icy moon and drill down into its ocean.

Swarming Technologies at JPL

Let’s home in on work that’s going on at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in the form of SWIM (Sensing With Independent Micro-Swimmers), a concept that, in the hands of JPL’s Ethan Schaler, has just moved into Phase II funding from NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program. The $600,000 award should allow Schaler’s team to develop and test 3D printed prototypes over the next two years. The plan is to design miniaturized robots of cellphone size that would swarm through subsurface oceans, released underwater from the ice-melting probe that drilled through the surface.

Schaler, a robotics mechanical engineer, focuses on miniaturization because of the opportunity it offers to widen the search space:

“My idea is, where can we take miniaturized robotics and apply them in interesting new ways for exploring our solar system? With a swarm of small swimming robots, we are able to explore a much larger volume of ocean water and improve our measurements by having multiple robots collecting data in the same area.”

Image: In the Sensing With Independent Micro-Swimmers (SWIM) concept, illustrated here, dozens of small robots would descend through the icy shell of a distant moon via a cryobot – depicted at left – to the ocean below. The project has received funding from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

We are talking about robots described as ‘wedge-shaped,’ each about 12 centimeters long and 60 to 75 cubic centimeters in volume. Space is tight on the cryobot that delivers the package to the Europan surface, but up to 50 of these robots could fit into the envisioned 10-centimeter long (25 centimeters in diameter) delivery package, while leaving enough room for accompanying instruments that will remain stationary under the ice.

I mentioned the Johns Hopkins work on communications tethers, and here the plan would be to connect to the surface lander (obviously ferociously shielded from radiation in this environment), allowing an open channel for data to flow to controllers on Earth. The swarm notion expands the possibilities for what the ice penetrating technology can do, as project scientist Samuel Howell, likewise at JPL, explains:

“What if, after all those years it took to get into an ocean, you come through the ice shell in the wrong place? What if there’s signs of life over there but not where you entered the ocean? By bringing these swarms of robots with us, we’d be able to look ‘over there’ to explore much more of our environment than a single cryobot would allow.”

Image: This illustration shows the NASA cryobot concept called Probe using Radioisotopes for Icy Moons Exploration (PRIME) deploying tiny wedge-shaped robots into the ocean miles below a lander on the frozen surface of an ocean world. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

One of the assumptions built into the SESAME effort is that the surface lander will use one of two nuclear power systems along with whatever technologies are built into the penetration hardware. Thus for the surface cryobot we have the option of a “small fission reactor providing 420 We and 43,000 Wth waste heat” or a “radioisotope power system providing up to 110 We and 2,000 Wth waste heat.” SWIM counts on nuclear waste heat to melt through the ice and also to produce a thermal bubble whose reactions with the ice above could be analyzed in terms of water chemistry.

The robots envisioned here have to be semi-autonomous, each with its own propulsion system, ultrasound communications capability and basic sensors, including chemical sensors to look for biomarkers. Overlapping measurements should allow this ‘flock’ of instrumentation to examine temperature or salinity gradients and more broadly characterize the chemistry of the subsurface water. We’ll follow SWIM with interest not only in the context of Europa but other ocean worlds that may be of astrobiological significance. If life can exist in these conditions, just how much biomass may turn up if we consider all the potential ice-covered oceans on moons and dwarf planets in the Solar System?

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Biofinder: A Remote Sensing Solution for Detecting Life
28 June 2022 | 12:12 pm

Biofinder: A Remote Sensing Solution for Detecting Life

My prediction that we’re going to find evidence for exo-life around another star before we find it in our own Solar System is being challenged from several directions. Alex Tolley recently looked at the Venus Life Finder mission, a low-cost and near-term way to examine the clouds of the nearest planet for evidence of biology (see Venus Life Finder: Scooping Big Science). Now we learn of advances in a ten-year old project at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, where Anupam Misra and team have been working on remote sensing instruments to detect minute biomarkers. This one looks made to order for Mars, but it also by extension speaks to future rovers on a variety of worlds.

Image: This artist’s impression shows how Mars may have looked about four billion years ago. The young planet Mars would have had enough water to cover its entire surface in a liquid layer about 140 m deep, but it is more likely that the liquid would have pooled to form an ocean occupying almost half of Mars’s northern hemisphere, and in some regions reaching depths greater than 1.6 km. How can we best identify markers of early life, assuming they exist? Credit: NOVA Next / UH Manoa.

The challenge is immense, because the lifeforms in question may be tiny, and may have been extinct for millions, if not billions, of years. As Misra’s recent paper notes, organic chemicals formed by biology, or minerals produced by living organisms, are the kind of biomarkers research efforts have targeted. We’re talking about proteins, lipids and fossil residues, the detection of any of which on another planet would lock down the case for life off the Earth. Instruments that can sweep wide areas with sensors and deliver fast detection times are critical for invigorating the biomarker hunt.

Remote sensing is the operative term. Misra’s team have developed what they call a Compact Color Biofinder that, in the words of the paper, “detects trace quantities of organic matter in a large area at video speed.” Moreover, the device can operate from distances of a few centimeters up to five meters. The intent is to move quickly, scanning large areas to locate these biological tracers. The device draws on fluorescence, a short-lived signal that can be found in most biological materials, including amino acids, fossils, clays, sedimentary rocks, plants, microbes, bio-residues, proteins and lipids. According to the authors, fluorescence also figures into polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAHs) and abiotic organics, such as plastic or amino acids.

Misra, who is lead instrument developer at the Hawai‘i Institute of Geophysics and Planetology at the university, makes the case that these traces are still viable, and that the Compact Color Biofinder can tell the difference between mineral phosphorescence and organic phosphorescence in daylight conditions with measurement times in the realm of one microsecond. It can also distinguish between different organic materials. Says Misra:

“There are some unknowns regarding how quickly bio-residues are replaced by minerals in the fossilization process. However, our findings confirm once more that biological residues can survive millions of years, and that using biofluorescence imaging effectively detects these trace residues in real time.”

Demonstrating the fact is news that the device can detect the bio-residue of fish fossils from the Green River formation, a geological feature resulting from sedimentation in a series of lakes along the Green River in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. The formation is thought to be between 34 and 56 million years old. The fish in question is Knightia spp, which untangles to several different species within the genus Knightia (spp stands for species pluralis, meaning several different species within the larger genus). The now extinct fish lived in freshwater lakes during the Eocene. The team examined 35 fish fossils, all of which still retained a significant quantity of bio-fluorescence.

Detection is from a distance of several meters and can be achieved over large areas, which should greatly accelerate the process of astrobiological detection on a planetary surface. From the paper:

To further test the detection capability of the Biofinder the camera lens was changed to a long working distance microscope objective, thus turning the instrument into a standoff fluorescence microscope. The same fossil was cut into several pieces to be imaged in cross-section (Fig. 1c). At the microscopic scale, fluorescence images (Fig. 1d) demonstrated the clear presence of organic material in the fossil by the characteristic fluorescence of organic matter detected using a 10× objective at a working distance of 54 mm. The brown color material has been known to paleontologists to be organic matter formed from residues of fish bones along with soft tissues20 and hence, we can say that the organic fluorescence comes from biological origin.

Image: This is Figure 1 from the paper. Caption: Biofinder detection of biological resides in fish fossil. (a) White light image of a Green River formation fish fossil, Knightia sp., from a distance of 50 cm using the Biofinder without laser excitation. (b) Fluorescence image of the fish fossil obtained by the Biofinder using a single laser pulse excitation, 1 µs detection time, and 3.6% gain on the CMOS detector. (c) Close-up white light image of the fish fossil cross-section using a 10× objective with 54 mm working distance showing the fish remains and rock matrix. (d) Fluorescence image with a single laser pulse excitation showing strong bio-fluorescence from the fish remains. Credit: Misra, et al., 2022.

So fluorescence imaging may join our toolkit for future rovers on other worlds, able to detect organisms that have been dead for millions of years by scanning large areas of terrain in short periods of time. The Biofinder detections were corroborated by a wide range of instruments, from laboratory spectroscopy analysis and scanning electron microscopy to fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy.

Image: This is Figure 3 from the paper. Caption: Confirmation of carbon and short-lived biofluorescence in fish fossil. (a) SEM–EDS analysis of the fish fossil cross-section showing that the fossil contains considerable quantities of carbon in comparison to the rock matrix. The rock matrix is rich in silica and has more oxygen than the fish. (b) FLIM image of the fossil cross-section showing strong bio-fluorescence in the fish (shown as false-coloured green-yellow region) with a lifetime of 2.7 ns. Credit: Misra et al.

The upshot: Biological residues can last for millions of years, and standoff bio-fluorescence imaging as used in the Compact Color Biofinder can detect them. Remote sensing is heating up in astrobiological circles, and I should mention two other ongoing projects: WALI (Wide Angle Laser Imaging enhancement to ExoMars PanCam) and OrganiCam, both based on fluorescence detection. The work of Misra and team indicates the method is sound, and should be capable of being deployed for large landscape surveys on future lander missions. The fact that the technology does not introduce contamination likewise speaks to its utility, says Sonia J. Rowley, a co-author of the paper and the biologist on the project:

“The Biofinder’s capabilities would be critical for NASA’s Planetary Protection program, for the accurate and non-invasive detection of contaminants such as microbes or extraterrestrial biohazards to or from planet Earth.”

The paper is Misra et al, “Biofinder detects biological remains in Green River fish fossils from Eocene epoch at video speed,” Scientific Reports 12, Article number: 10164 (2022). Full text.

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Of Algorithms and Hidden Planets
24 June 2022 | 9:58 am

Of Algorithms and Hidden Planets

It’s hard to imagine what the field of exoplanet discovery will look like in a hundred years. Just as difficult as it is to imagine what might happen if we do get to a ‘singularity’ in machine intelligence beyond which we humans can’t venture. Will the study of other stellar systems become largely a matter of computers analyzing data acquired by AI, with human operators standing by only in case of equipment failure? Or will the human eye for pattern and detail so evident in many current citizen science projects always be needed to help us piece together what the machines find?

I wonder this when I read about the effort going into teasing new data out of older observations, as we saw recently in VASCO, a project to study old astronomical photographic plates looking for possible technosignatures. And I suspect we’ll always need human/machine collaboration to draw maximum knowledge out of our data. Today let’s look at how useful software tools are illuminating what we’ve already learned about an exceedingly interesting and relatively close planetary system.

Sometimes it becomes necessary to begin writing about something by carefully explaining what it is not. In this case, I’m talking about the planetary system e Eridani, otherwise known as 82 Eridani, and it’s important to add that this is not the system known as Epsilon Eridani. The latter, interesting in its own right, is nearby (10.5 light years) and in fact is the third closest individual star system visible to the naked eye. The former, our subject today, is 20 light years out, a G-class dwarf with several confirmed planets. In the southern hemisphere Gould star catalogs, compiled in the late 19th Century, it is listed as the 82nd star in the constellation Eridanus.

This is potentially confusing enough that I’m going to use 82 Eridani rather than e Eridani in this article, which will look at an interesting way to study exoplanet systems that are close by, and one that offers useful new insights into what may be found in the 82 Eridani system that we have yet to discover. We already know about two planets, now confirmed, that were found through radial velocity data, and the same data suggest another. As many as six planets may exist here based on recent analysis by Fabo Feng (University of Hertfordshire) and colleagues in a 2017 paper.

Image: This table shows what we currently know about the planetary system at 82 Eridani, including evidence for a dust disk. As we’re about to see, a hypothetical seventh planet turns up in the work we discuss below. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In a new paper in the Astronomical Journal, Ritvik Basant (University of Arizona) and colleagues go to work on the planetary architecture of 82 Eridani with a software package called DYNAMITE (developed by co-author Daniel Apai) that folds information specific to this system into a broader analysis incorporating what the authors call ‘exoplanet demographics.’ At stake here is this question: If an additional planet exists in a given system, what can we say about the probability distributions of its orbit, its eccentricity, its likely size? Let me quote from the paper:

To answer this question, DYNAMITE uses the robust trends identified in the Kepler exoplanet demographics data (orbital period distribution, planet-size distribution, etc., based on the ∼2400 exoplanets that form the Kepler population) with specific data for a given single exoplanet system (detected planets and constraints on their orbits and sizes). Based on this information, DYNAMITE uses a Monte Carlo approach to map the likelihood of different planetary architectures, also considering the orbital dynamical stability and allowing for the freedom of statistical model choice.

I’m going into the weeds here because this package has already shown its worth. Back in 2020, Apai and co-author Jeremy Dietrich used DYNAMITE on 45 transiting systems discovered by TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) to make predictions about undiscovered planets. Their work showed in multiple instances that an already discovered planet, if initially hidden from the software, would be retrieved by DYNAMITE, a test the software also passed when applied to the system at TOI-174, where more than one planet was removed and the probability of additional planets was noted in the software.

The accomplishments of DYNAMITE can be further examined in the paper, but I’ll mention its utility in the Tau Ceti system and its prediction of a habitable zone planet there, as well as interesting work on the K2-138 system, where it made what turns out to have been accurate predictions on two planets. So this seems to be a robust package, drawing heavily on existing data on planetary populations – it works best with the typical rather than the outlier, in other words, a fact to keep in mind before we extrapolate too freely.

Exoplanet science is all about tugging facts out of challenging data, as has been the case since the detection of 51 Pegasi b or, for that matter, the pulsar planets at PSR 1257+12. Continually refining our techniques through ever more sophisticated equipment sharpens radial velocity and transit detections, but we’re also learning how the right algorithms can be applied to the data we generate to suggest new targets for study. As our equipment improves, our algorithms are continually tuned up.

What we have so far for 82 Eridani shows the method at work in a system where our knowledge of several planet candidates is uncertain. DYNAMITE generates hypotheses exploring possible combinations of planet candidates. Each of these hypotheses produces predictions, and as it turns out, all four hypotheses produced for 82 Eridani result in planetary orbits that are quite similar. The authors also draw on a new DYNAMITE module that uses a statistical approach to explore possible surface temperatures. So this is a wide ranging look at the system, and they consider the work an “exploratory assessment” only, until more constraining data become available.

It will be interesting indeed to see how accurately this assessment describes what we will one day find with improved observational techniques. Beginning with the assumption of a system consisting of only the three known planets, DYNAMITE provides further support for the earlier work that predicted three more potential worlds (no information from the 2017 study, mentioned above, was used as input for the software). The parameters for the three candidate planets turn out to be in good agreement with the results of Fabo Feng and team. If all six planets, confirmed and unconfirmed, are used as input, DYNAMITE then predicts one additional planet in the habitable zone.

Here the software is suggestive in relation to the orbital eccentricity of these worlds:

From our eccentricity analysis, we find that if e Eridani is a three-planet system with planets b, d, and e, then the combined mean eccentricity for the system to be stable is ∼0.05. If the system is a six-planet system instead, then the combined mean eccentricity for the system to be stable is of an order ∼0.026. In either case, we find that the eccentricity of each planet should be significantly lower than the value fitted to the RV data, as also proposed by Feng et al. (2017a).

As the planetary system’s stability necessitates a lower-than-reported eccentricity for the planets, our analysis is based on this assumption. If better constraints on the eccentricities become available in future, then our analysis could be repeated again with the updated values.

So this is a rolling process, with the DYNAMITE results seeming to support seven planets at this star, including one additional candidate in the habitable zone, joining the previously predicted 82 Eridani f there. Indeed, the habitable zone around this star is wide enough, and the inner planetary system likely to be complex enough, to raise 82 Eridani higher on the list of planetary systems we will want to examine for life, using future direct imaging via space-based observatories and terrestrial extremely large telescopes. That new habitable zone planet candidate, by the way, would likely be a mini-Neptune rather than a terrestrial world based on the DYNAMITE results.

It’s interesting to see that Guillem Anglada-Escudé, the astronomer behind the discovery of Proxima Centauri b, worked with exoplanet hunter Paul Butler to develop an algorithm called TERRA to filter noise and sharpen radial velocity analysis. It was this algorithm that turned up the evidence for the three additional candidates at 82 Eridani in Feng and team’s 2017 paper that played into the work using DYNAMITE.

So we have three known planets at 82 Eridani, three more suggested by the TERRA analysis of the existing RV data and strengthened by the DYNAMITE results, and now a possible seventh world with an orbital period of 549-733 days in the habitable zone. Again, the new worlds here are planet candidates at this point and await further observation and analysis. The latter will give us one day the data that will tighten algorithms like these still further, giving us better options to distinguish between probabilities and decide which of them merit precious telescope time.

The paper is Basant et al, “An Integrative Analysis of the Rich Planetary System of the Nearby Star e Eridani: Ideal Targets for Exoplanet Imaging and Biosignature Searches,” Astronomical Journal Vol. 164, No. 1 (16 June 2022) 12 (full text). If you want to dig further into the background, the Feng et al. paper is “Evidence for at least three planet candidates orbiting HD 20794,” Astronomy & Astrophysics Vol. 605 (September 2017) A 103 (abstract).

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