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Nasa's Tiny Submarines May Search Jupiter's Moon Europa For Life In Underground Lakes (PICTURES)

18/06/2013 09:47 BST | Updated 17/08/2013 10:12 BST
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Europa.

In The Guardian's remarkable last interview with sci-fi legend Iain Banks, the Culture author briefly listed the things he wished he'd be able to live see.

"I'd love to see what's going to happen next," he said. "What's happening in the oceans of Jupiter's moon, Europa."

Europa fascinates scientists, because many think it might hold the best chance in our solar system of supporting life.

Data from both the Voyager and Galileo space probes suggests that the moon holds an ocean of warm, salty water - bigger than all of Earth's oceans combined - underneath its outer layer of ice, and that in those murky depths it's possible that - well, something - might be living.

As such the idea of exploring this ocean has long fascinated scientists - though for obvious reasons (not least among them, Europa's distance from Earth), sending humans is less than feasible.

But back in 2007 Carl Ross, a professor at the University of Portsmouth, proposed a novel idea: let's send a submarine.

And now Nasa is closer than ever to trying it for real.

europa submersible Movie sequence of a miniature submarine exploring under the ice.

The idea of the watery probe was developed further by Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Angstrom Space Technology Centre in Sweden, and has now been refined into a practical prototype by Jonas Jonsson, an engineer at Nasa's Ames Research Centre.

The mission would see a craft land on the surface of Europea, and drill a small hole in the ice. It would then release a robotic craft about the size of two cola cans into the gap. And if that sounds fanciful, remember that we did just land an SUV-sized rover on Mars with a hovering sky crane.

europa jupiter

Above: The craft would then explore the ocean of Europa, controlled by a remote operator.

Powered by eight small thrusters, Dadu would be attached by a fibre-optic tether to a surface lander and have built-in software designed to avoid obstacles - or, you know, space sharks.

Equipment to collect any potential living species - small ones, obviously - would also be included in the machine.

In a piece for Huffington Post and Space.com, Jonsson said that the tiny submarine - named Deeper Access, Deeper Understanding (Dadu) could first be used to test hard-to-reach environments on Earth.

"A mission to explore Lake Vostok in Antarctica, which is believed to have been isolated from the rest of the world by kilometers of thick ice for millions of years, would of course be the 'Holy Grail' mission, and a real proof of concept for a future mission to explore the oceans thought to exist underneath some of the frozen moons in the solar system, such as Europa and Enceladus," Jonsson said.

The craft is still a long way from being finished - and any mission to Europa is still dependent on Nasa (or another agency) developing a range of new technologies, and getting new funding from the US government. But Jonsson is convinced that if we really want to start looking for life in our Solar System, Europa's oceans should be very high on that list.

And potentially, we may soon have more reason to go than ever.

The European Space Agency is aiming to launch a mission to the moon to measure the thickness of its ice in 2030 (known as Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer Mission, or Juice) and Nasa is also looking into a fly-by mission in future decades. If they turn up interesting science, it's possible that the Little Submarine That Could might head to Europa sooner rather than later.