Here's Why NASA Can't Just Send a Submarine to Explore Europa's Oceans (Yet)

Europa Submarine Concept 9 photos
Photo: NASA
Europa ProbesEuropa ProbesEuropa ProbesARCHIMEDESEuropa Crust SchematicEuropa Crust SchematicEuropa ProbesEuropa Probes
If there's one thing scientists have learned about the formation of life, it's that wherever there is liquid water, life tends to show up on a long enough timeline. That's why Europa, one of Jupiter's four major moons, is so fascinating. Mostly because if calculations are right, there's probably more water on Europa than on Earth.
The prospects of bringing a space probe over vast distances to Jupiter and sticking an even smaller drilling lander onto Europa's icy surface are pretty dubious assumptions. But it's not like NASA hasn't floated the idea in the past. A proposal for a mission to bore our way through the crusty, icy outer layers of Europa's surface to find the real treasures in the watery deep called Project ARTIMEDIAS. As it turns out, such a mission has more than a couple of complications. Let's take a deep dive into what they might be.

Europa's Ice Crust is Almost Hilariously Thick

For some reference for the facts and figures we're about to drop, the deepest, longest borehole ever constructed on Earth reached 12,262 meters (40,230 ft, 7.619 mi) in 1989 on the Kola Peninsula near the Russian-Norwegian border. This feat is still seen today as an all-time human achievement in engineering. Our most successful attempt at drilling as deeply into the Earth's crust as physically possible.

With all this in mind, even at the thinnest portions of the Europan crust, it can stretch to a depth of anywhere from 15 to 25 thousand meters (49,000-82,000 ft, 9.2-15.5 m. It can likely get substantially deeper in the thicker portions near the poles and equator.

Photo: NASA
So then, if only a fraction of this depth pushed the abilities of modern drilling/boring techniques to their absolute limits, the idea that something substantially more capable could be stowed away on a rocket and survive a 390.4 million mile trip to Europa does not have favorable betting odds.

Sure, there are things engineers can do to work around some of the more obvious difficulties in drilling through Europa's ice crust. Novel devices like cryobots have been developed to effectively make their way through thick layers of glacial ice here on Earth by actively heating themselves and melting/sliding their way through long stretches of frozen H2O. But even on Earth, such cryobots haven't traveled nearly far enough to justify a trip to Europa.

The Pressure in Europa's Ocean Could Turn Probes to Pancakes

For the sake of a good story, let's just assume that some NASA/ESA cryobot submarine probe manages to make its way under absurdly deep Europan ice and finds itself among the virgin waters of another heavenly body. Firstly, congratulations. Secondly, we hope you have some flashlights handy.

Apart from any unforeseen bioluminescent organisms that may or may not be down there, there's no hope of any sunlight reaching down into the ocean below. So then, you better hope this submarine probe packs a sizeable isotope reactor inside its belly if it wants to operate for very long. But the biggest issue a submarine probe is liable to find in Europa's waters is the scale-breaking, bone-crushing oceanic pressure.

Where Earth's oceans never delve deeper than 12 kilometers deep (7.5-mi), estimates based on data from observational probes estimate Europa's oceans could span a scarcely believable 100 kilometers (62 mi). With that in mind, the pressures a Europan submarine would be liable to endure dwarf anything even the most robust terrestrial Earth submarines could be expected to cope with. For some more context, the estimated pressure at the bottom of Earth's Marianas Trench has been proven to be in the range of 1,100 Bar, or 16,000 PSI.

Europa Crust Schematic
Photo: NASA
Suppose estimates about the depths of Europa's subterranean ocean are accurate. In that case, it's thought the moon could store as much as twice the amount of liquid water found on the entirety of the Earth's surface and perhaps even more. Knowing this, it wouldn't be a stretch to believe pressures in the depths of this extraterrestrial ocean could reach a metal-crunching 10,000 Bar or 145,000 PSI. The crush depths of even the most advanced modern submarines fall short of withstanding this pressure.

Clearly, any sort of life that manages to survive at this depth would have been classified as an extremophile had it been found on Earth. That's why NASA and the ESA's latest plan to launch aboard the SLS booster rocket in 2025 and land in 2027 is proposed to drill a few feet or so into the Jovian moon's ice, but drilling any further deeper is still as far as we know, not quite in our capability, let alone putting a submarine in its oceans. But hey, the technology is all there in theory. Maybe it just needs to be beefed up a bit.
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