Outside of earth Europa is probably the best place for life as we know it to develop. Beneath the radiation soaked exterior, which consists of an ice layer that could be up to 20KM thick, lies a vast ocean that stretches deep into Europa’s interior. This internal ocean, though bereft of any light, could very well harbor the right conditions to support the development of complex life. However if we’re ever going to entertain the idea of exploring the depths of that vast and dark place we’ll first need a lot more data on Europa itself. Last week NASA has greenlit the Europa Clipper mission which will do just that, slated for some time in the 2020 decade.
Exploration of Europa has been relatively sparse, with the most recent mission being the New Horizons probe which imaged Europa on its Jupiter flyby on its path to Pluto. Indeed the majority of missions that have imaged Europa have been flybys with the only long duration mission being the Galileo probe that was in orbit around Jupiter for 8 years which included numerous flybys of Europa. The Europa Clipper mission would be quite similar in nature with the craft conducting multiple flybys rather than staying in orbit. The mission would include the multiple year journey to our jovian brother and no less than 45 flybys of Europa once it arrived.
It might seem odd that an observation mission would opt to do numerous flybys rather than a continuous orbit however there are multiple reasons for this. For starters Jupiter has a powerful radiation belt that stretches some 700,000KM out from the planet, enveloping Europa. This means that any craft that dares enter Jupiter’s orbit its lifetime is usually somewhat limited and should NASA have opted for an orbital mission rather than a flyby one the craft’s expected lifetime wouldn’t be much more than a month or so. Strictly speaking this might not be too much of an issue as you can make a lot of observations in a month however the real challenge comes from getting that data back down to Earth.
Deep space robotic probes are often capable of capturing a lot more information than they’re able to send back in real time, leading to them storing a lot of information locally and transmitting it back over a longer period of time. If the Europa clipper was orbital this would mean it would only have 30 days with which to send back information, not nearly enough for the volumes of data that modern probes can generate. The flybys though give the probe more than enough time to dump all of its data back down to Earth whilst it’s coasting outside of Jupiter’s harsh radiation belts, ensuring that all data gathered is returned safely.
Hopefully the data that this craft brings back will pave the way for a potential mission to the surface sometime in the future. Europa has so much potential for harboring life that we simply must investigate it and the data gleaned from the Europa Clipper mission will provide the basis for a future landing mission. Of course such a mission is likely decades away however I, and many others, believe that a mission to poke beneath the surface of Europa is the best chance we have of finding alien life. Even if we don’t that will provide valuable insight into the conditions for forming life and will help point our future searches.
If there’s any place in our solar system that we’d want to start seriously looking for life it’d be Europa. The dust covered snowball of a moon likely contains a vast subsurface ocean, one that is kept liquid by the giant gravitational forces of its host planet Jupiter. This makes Europa a great candidate for life as we know it as once we find water it’s inevitable that we find life shortly thereafter. The challenge with Europa though is getting to that subsurface ocean to study it as it could be covered in several kilometers of water ice, not something you can simply puncture through. Whilst there are numerous people more qualified than me on this subject, many of them actually working in the aerospace industry, with NASA asking for ideas for a potential mission to Europa I figured I’d throw my 2 cents in.
So the total budget for the potential mission is a cool $1 billion and whilst that sounds like a lot of money projects that I’d consider simpler than my idea (like say Curiosity which was $2.5 billion) but I think there’s potential to build a platform that could fuel further missions. With that in mind this initial mission is likely only to be a scouting mission, one that will give us the most detailed picture of Europa possible so that the follow up mission can choose the perfect site to land on and commence the search for life in its vast underground ocean. My proposal then is to develop a compact nuclear reactor (not a RTG) to power a scouting craft laden with instruments to analyse the gravitic field and surface of Europa. This craft will be able to find the point at which the surface ice is the thinnest and identify potential landing sites for the second generation craft: a cryobot that will punch through to the ocean below.
Putting a nuclear reactor into space might sound like the plan of a crazed sci-fi nerd but there’s actually been dozens of small prototype reactors launched into space with all of them proving to be safe and reliable. The power capabilities of such a reactor are far beyond that of what a small satellite would usually require however attempting to melt through kilometers of ice will require power of that scale. Thus it would make sense to fund research into developing the power supply first and then validating it on the scouting craft. Then, once that mission is successful, the reactor can be scaled to the appropriate dimensions for the cryobot mission and even used in other deep space programs.
Having such a generous amount of power available also opens up the opportunity to using instruments on the scouting craft which would not be feasible, typically. Things like high-power antennas (which could function as a relay for the follow up mission), radar imagers or bigger and better versions of other instruments. My knowledge on the power requirements of various instruments is limited but I know that even the most advanced RTGs, like the one in Curiosity, produce a measly 125W. Being able to draw on several kilowatts, an order of magnitude more power, seems like it would open up many opportunities that just weren’t possible previously.
I’m probably vastly underestimating how much it would cost to develop such technology, especially in today’s nuclear hostile political environment, but if we’re serious about actually digging under Europa’s surface I don’t see what our other options would be. Melting through giant sheets of ice is no small task and one that has requirements that far surpass anything we have currently. Using that $1 billion mission to set ourselves up for future exploration seems like the best bet especially considering how many other applications a safe, small nuclear reactor would have.
Carl Sagan is quote as saying that “life looks for life”. Indeed if our own history is anything to go by we’re in a constant state of searching out other forms of life and just recently we’ve extended that search beyond the confines of the world that gave rise to us. So far our search beyond our home world has proved fruitless as we’ve been unable to find any direct indications of life on any other heavenly body that’s within our reach. Thus we find Earth in what appears to be some great isolation which is a somewhat disconcerting notion given the age of the universe and the number of potential habitable planets in our galactic backyard. We should not be discouraged however as our quest to find life elsewhere is only just beginning.
Of all the other heavenly bodies that inhabit our solar system there’s one that stands out as the best candidate for housing life. Now if I was to ask the question of which body it was most people would respond with Mars as it’s the only planet that resembles Earth in some fashion, with the next closest candidate being the raging hell of Venus. It’s not a bad guess either as we’ve proven several times over that there was once vast amounts of water there and there’s still a very good chance there’s liquid water present today. However Mars is a very inhospitable place so much so that the best hope for life there is nothing above microbial and even that seems like a far reaching prospect.
Europa on the other hand is quite the curiosity. As far as moons go it really is something out of left field being a striking combination of bright whites and browns. It’s surface is also one of the smoothest in the solar system thanks to it being made almost entirely of water ice. That doesn’t mean it’s featureless however as the entire surface is criss-crossed with fracture lines from the giant ice sheet breaking apart and reforming. Many have speculated that this is because the surface actually lies on top of a giant subsurface ocean and when cracks form the ocean rushes up to fill it, forming the characteristic lines. It’s this undersea ocean that makes Europa one of the best candidates for life forming outside of Earth and recent studies show it just got a little better.
The potential ocean on Europa would be some 3KM below the surface, quite a ways away from any direct sunlight or other potential energy sources. It’s theorized then that the ocean is kept liquid by the tidal flexing that Europa undergoes every time it orbits Jupiter which could also drive the same kinds of volcanism processes that gives rise to life in the depths of our oceans. However recent research shows that there’s potential for some subsurface lakes that are much closer to the surface than the great ocean below. These lakes would have a higher rate of churn between water and ice providing a much a habitat that’d be more nutrient rich and hopefully more hospitable to life. Of both these recently modelled oceans and the great subsurface ocean haven’t yet been conclusively proven, but that just makes Europa a really tantalizing target for exploration.
Quite a few missions have swung past Europa already with the most detailed analysis being done by the Galileo craft from 1995 to 2003. However we haven’t been back there recently save for a short flyby by the New Horizons craft that imaged it on its way to Pluto. If we were to go back there my favourite mission candidate would be the Crybot style mission. In essence it’s a probe that’s fitted with a giant heater on the front of it, capable of plunging through several kilometres of ice. Once it broke through it would then deploy a small autonomous underwater vehicle that could investigate the subsurface ocean. This mission hasn’t got past the back of the napkin style planning stages yet, but I’m hopeful that we’ll one day attempt such a mission.
Europa is a curiosity unlike any other in our solar system and there’s so much we could learn from it if we were to send a mission there. Whilst the environment there isn’t really human friendly (the radiation at the surface is quite large, about 450 chest x-rays a day worth) it’s definitely within our current capabilities of robotic exploration. I know that one day we’ll see a dedicate mission there but until then I’m quite content to continue fantasizing about the undersea world that it contains and the tantalizing possibility that as of yet unknown life forms exist there.
Last week saw the much talked about Microsoft BUILD conference take place, the one for which all us developers tentatively held our breath wondering what the future of the Microsoft platform would be. Since then there’s been a veritable war chest of information that’s come from the conference and I unfortunately didn’t get the time to cover it last week (thanks mostly to my jet setting ways). Still not writing about it right away has given me some time to digest the flood of information and speculation that this conference has brought us and I personally believe that Windows 8 is nothing but good news for developers, even those who thought it would lead to the death of their ecosystem.
For starters the project codenamed Jupiter has an official name of Windows Run Time (WinRT) and looks to be an outright replacement for the Win32 API that’s been around since 1993. The big shift here is that whilst Win32 was designed for a world of C programmers WinRT will instead be far more object-oriented, aimed more directly at the C++ world. WinRT applications will also use the XAML framework for their user interfaces and will compile to native x86 code rather than to .NET bytecode like they currently do. WinRT applications also do away with the idea of dialog boxes, removing the notion of modal applications completely (at least, in the native API). This coupled with the fact that any API that takes longer than 50ms to respond being asynchronous means that Metro apps are inherently more responsive, something that current x86 desktop apps can’t guarantee. Additionally should an app be designed for the Metro styled interface it must only use the WinRT libraries for the interface, you can’t have mixed Metro/Classic applications.
If you’re after an in-depth breakdown of what WinRT means for developers Miguel de Icaza (of Mono fame) has a great breakdown here.
WinRT will also not be a universal platform on which will provide backwards compatibility for all current Windows applications. It’s long been known that Windows 8 will be able to run on ARM processors but what wasn’t clear was whether or not current applications would be compatible with the flavour of Windows running on said architecture. As it turns out x86 applications won’t work on the ARM version of Windows however applications written on the WinRT framework will run on every platform with only minor code changes (we’re talking single digit lines here). Those legacy applications will still run perfectly well in the Desktop mode that Windows 8 offers and they’ll be far from second class citizens as Microsoft recognizes how things like their Office suite don’t translate well to the tablet environment.
Taking this all into consideration it seems like there will be a line in the sand between what I’ll call “Full” Windows 8 users and “Metro” based users. Whilst initially I thought that Jupiter would mean any application (not just those developed on WinRT) would be able to run anywhere it seems that only WinRT apps have that benefit, with current x86 apps relegated to desktop mode. That leads me to the conclusion that the full Windows 8 experience, including the Desktop app, won’t be available to all users. In fact those running on ARM architecture more than likely won’t have access to the desktop at all instead being relegated to just the Metro UI. This isn’t a bad thing at all since tablets, phones et. al. have very different use cases than those of the desktop but, on the surface at least, it would appear to be a step away from their Three Screens vision.
From what I can tell though Microsoft believes the future is Metro styled apps for both desktop and tablet users a like. John Gruber said it best when he said “it’s going to be as if Mac OS X could run iPad apps, but iPads could still only run iPad apps. Metro everywhere, not Windows everywhere.” which I believe is an apt analogy. I believe Microsoft will push WinRT/Metro as the API to rule them all and with them demoing Xbox Live on Windows 8 it would seem that at least on some level WinRT will be making it’s way to the Xbox, thereby realizing Microsoft’s Three Screens idea. Whether the integration between those 3 platforms works as well as advertised remains to be seen but the demo’s shown at BUILD are definitely promising.
However it has come to my attention that Microsoft has been hinting at a potential panacea for all these woes, for quite some time now.
Back in January there were many rumours circling around the new features we could look forward to in Windows 8. Like any speculation on upcoming products there’s usually a couple facts amongst the rumour mill, usually from those who are familiar with the project. Two such features which got some air time were Mosh and Jupiter, two interesting ideas that at the time were easily written off as either speculation or things that would never eventuate. However Mosh, rumoured at the time to be a “tiled based interface”, turned out to be the feature which caused the developer uproar just a couple months ago. Indeed the speculation was pretty much spot on since it’s basically the tablet interface for Windows 8, but it also has a lot of potential for nettops and netbooks since underneath the full Windows 8 experience is still available.
The Jupiter rumour then can be taken a little bit more seriously, but I can see why many people passed it over back at the start of this year. In essence Jupiter just looked like yet another technology platform from Microsoft, just like Windows Presentation Framework and Silverlight before it. Some did recognize it as having the potential to be the bridge for Windows 8 onto tablets which again shoe horned it into being just another platform. However some did speculate that Jupiter could be much more than that, going as far to say that it could be the first step towards a unified development platform across the PC, tablet and mobile phone space. If Microsoft could pull that kind of stunt off they’d not only have one of the most desirable platforms for developers they’d also be taking a huge step forward towards realizing their Three Screens philosophy.
I’ll be honest and say that up until yesterday I had no idea that Jupiter existed, so it doesn’t surprise me that many of the outraged developers wouldn’t have known about it either. However yesterday I caught wind of an article from TechCrunch that laid bare all the details of what Jupiter could be:
- It is a new user interface library for Windows. (source)
- It is an XAML-based framework. (source)
- It is not Silverlight or WPF, but will be compatible with that code. (source)
- Developers will write immersive applications in XAML/C#/VB/C++ (source, source, source,source)
- It will use IE 10′s rendering engine. (source)
- DirectUI (which draws the visual elements on the screen, arrived in Windows Vista) is being overhauled to support the XAML applications. (source, source)
- It will provide access to Windows 8 elements (sensors, networking, etc.) via a managed XAML library. (source)
- Jupiter apps will be packaged as AppX application types that could be common to both Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8. (source, source, source, source)
- The AppX format is universal, and can used to deploy native Win32 apps, framework-based apps (Silverlight, WPF), Web apps, and games (source)
- Jupiter is supposed to make all the developers happy, whether .NET (i.e., re-use XAML skills), VB, old-school C++ or Silverlight/WPF. (Source? See all the above!)…
Why does Jupiter matter so much? If it’s not clear from the technical details above, it’s because Jupiter may end up being the “one framework” to rule them all. That means it might be possible to port the thousands of Windows Phone apps already written with Silverlight to Windows 8 simply by reusing existing code and making small tweaks. Or maybe even no tweaks. (That part is still unclear). If so, this would be a technical advantage for developers building for Windows Phone 8 (code-named “Apollo” by the way, the son of “Jupiter”) or Windows 8.
In a nutshell it looks like Microsoft is looking to unify at all of the platforms that run Windows under the Jupiter banner, enabling developers to port applications between them without having to undergo massive rework of their code. Of course the UI would probably need to be redone for each target platform but since the same design tools will work regardless of the platform the redesigns will be far less painful then they currently are. The best part about Jupiter though is that it leverages current developer skill sets, enabling anyone with experience on the Windows platform to be able to code in the new format.
Jupiter then represents a fundamental shift in Windows developer ecosystem, one that’s for the better of everyone involved.
We’ll have to wait until BUILD in September to find out the official word from Microsoft on what Jupiter will actually end up being, but there’s a lot of evidence mounting that it will be the framework to use when building applications for Microsoft’s systems. Microsoft has a proven track record of creating some of the best developer tools around and that, coupled with the potential to have one code base to rule them all, could make all of Microsoft’s platforms extremely attractive for developers. Whether this will translate into success for Microsoft on the smartphone and tablet space remains to be seen, but they’ll definitely be giving Apple and Google a run for their developers.