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Draper Labs Develops Low Cost Probe To Orbit, Land On Europa For NASA 79

Posted by samzenpus
from the heading-out dept.
MarkWhittington writes Ever since the House passed a NASA spending bill that allocated $100 million for a probe to Jupiter's moon Europa, the space agency has been attempting to find a way to do such a mission on the cheap. The trick is that the mission has to cost less than $1 billion, a tall order for anything headed to the Outer Planets. According to a Wednesday story in the Atlantic, some researchers at Draper Labs have come up with a cheap way to do a Europa orbiter and land instruments on its icy surface.

The first stage is to orbit a cubesat, a tiny, coffee can sized satellite that would contain two highly accurate accelerometers that would go into orbit around Europa and measure its gravity field. In this way the location of Europa's subsurface oceans would be mapped. Indeed it is possible that the probe might find an opening through the ice crust to the ocean, warmed it is thought by tidal forces.

The second stage is to deploy even smaller probes called chipsats, tiny devices that contain sensors, a microchip, and an antenna. Hundreds of these probes, the size of human fingernails, would float down on Europa's atmosphere to be scattered about its surface. While some might be lost, enough will land over a wide enough area to do an extensive chemical analysis of the surface of Europa, which would then be transmitted to the cubesat mothership and then beamed to Earth.
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Draper Labs Develops Low Cost Probe To Orbit, Land On Europa For NASA

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  • by NoNonAlphaCharsHere (2201864) on Friday June 20, 2014 @12:34AM (#47279081)
    Attempt no landings there!!!
    • Use them together, use them in peace.

      • by sconeu (64226)

        Not in the book. The PC addendum was only for the movie.

        In the book there was no Cold War subplot.

        • What's this "Book" thing you speak of, some Ancient form of communication or something? I've heard of it but don't really know what it is.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Only mad men would attempt landings there

  • by RyanFenton (230700) on Friday June 20, 2014 @01:06AM (#47279173)

    That's science right there - all our best evidence indicates that this can be feasible, and this seems the least effort to try it. Nice plan to at least see how far we can get, before we have to revise and replan. We're testing just the principles we want to test, using established functionality where we aren't testing.

    That's far more 'magical' to me, than promising another set of boots in places that won't be feasible without exactly these kinds of experiments happening first. More rovers - more measurements!

    When we need to spend the big resources to send people off this gravity well, lets have it make sense, perhaps set up a semblance of an workable environment first. We can barely make earth-based closed etiologies last for long - it would be a sad excuse for a 'backup' with our current level of development. We absolutely CAN expand into the galaxy/universe - but we've still got a few mountains of puzzle pieces left unsorted still, in my particular opinion.

    Ryan Fenton

    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      We can barely make earth-based closed etiologies last for long

      Who is this 'we'? If you mean NASA, that's 100% correct. But there's terrariums which have been sealed for decades. A couple of cubic feet. As a species, I think we have people capable of doing this. We're not hiring them.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 20, 2014 @01:37AM (#47279247)

    Cubesat-sized stuff is so small mostly because it tosses overboard redundancy and rad-hardened components.

    While it may work for short times on Earth orbit, sending a mini probe like this all the way to Jupiter (a very hostile radiation environment if there ever was one) sounds like a good way of wasting a launcher to me.

    Now if they'd toss half a dozen of these, I might buy it that one or two will get to Europa orbit and may actually do something useful.

    • Gee, I guess the engineers at NASA don't know about radiation levels at Jupiter. Lucky for them you posted about it on the internets. I'll forward them your post so they aren't left in the dark.

      • by werepants (1912634) on Friday June 20, 2014 @11:14AM (#47281707)

        Gee, I guess the engineers at NASA don't know about radiation levels at Jupiter. Lucky for them you posted about it on the internets. I'll forward them your post so they aren't left in the dark.

        Actually, OP is completely correct. I just sat in on a series of NASA talks on cubesats (NEPP, look it up) - they have huge problems with radiation and reliability because there isn't the budget for the testing and qualification that happens with typical satellites. Translation: 30% failure rate in benign environments. For reference, we're talking about systems that are (mostly) good up to 1-4 krads of ionizing dose, while projections I've seen for the Europa environment are ~ 2 Mrads. Or 2000 krads, if your metric is rusty. So we're talking about as much as 3 orders of magnitude more dose, with a system architecture that already experiences horrendous failure rates.

        I don't know anything about Draper systems, but unless they've included mass budget for some serious shielding (look up JUNO and the "vault" they used for their electronics) there's no way this thing will last long enough to do useful science, if it even survives the trip there. It's entirely possible that this entire thing is the brainchild of a couple of postdocs who took some classes on spacecraft architectures but no nothing about how rad-hard electronic systems are actually developed.

        Now, it's certainly possible that this project would be in a different class of cubesat, and they might be able to afford real, rad-hard components with Mrad range dose tolerance, but even so, Jupiter is one of the harshest radiation environments in the solar system, and satellites with traditional, expensive development cycles still have mission lifetimes of several months, tops. The only real way I could see them being successful is with rad-hard components and an extremely short mission profile - show up, dump the chipsats, and beam back some data as fast as possible before your electronics go insane and melt.

      • Since NASA engineers didn't develop the probe in question, I fail to see how your comment is relevant. The probe in question was designed by Draper Labs, smart guys to be sure - but not known for their experience in designing deep space probes.

    • by ShanghaiBill (739463) on Friday June 20, 2014 @09:23AM (#47280729)

      Cubesat-sized stuff is so small mostly because it tosses overboard redundancy and rad-hardened components.

      You can significantly rad-harden a device without adding weight. First, make sure the semiconductors use depleted boron [wikipedia.org]. Many off-the-shelf semiconductors already use Boron-11. Second, use any spare CPU cycles to run checksums on memory and FPGA bitstreams, to detect and restore flipped bits. Third, use a few cheap rad-harded 8-bit microcontrollers, such as 8051, for the most critical functions, such as the watchdog timer, and controlling the fallback RX/TX to Earth, including the ability to receive and install software patches. These 8-bit MCUs can be OTP with blown fuses, so there are no bits to flip.

  • by caffeinated_bunsen (179721) on Friday June 20, 2014 @01:45AM (#47279269)
    Um, are we talking about the same Europa here? The one with the atmosphere that barely musters a nanotorr at the surface? The one where the terminal velocity of a scrap of mylar film is on the order of tens of kilometers per second? I think that "float down" plan may have been selected a bit hastily.

    At least the chipsats turning into teeny little craters in the ice will reduce the data burden for the cubesat's transmitter, which based on those solar panels has a power budget of about a tenth of a watt to make a link at a range close to a billion kilometers. You can maybe squeeze a few hundred bits per second out of that while you're tying up a DSN dish, otherwise forget it.

    Maybe they're thinking of making it an accessory to a full-size probe, but forgot to mention the need to send a few hundred kilograms of other stuff out there too. Or maybe somebody was behind on their press release quota, and this half-baked crap was the best thing they had lying around.
    • by petes_PoV (912422) on Friday June 20, 2014 @04:07AM (#47279663)

      Um, are we talking about the same Europa here?

      Maybe the Draper Labs guys misread the project definition.
      "Europa??? we thought you meant Europe"

    • by gl4ss (559668)

      "which would then be transmitted to the cubesat mothership and then beamed to Earth."

      furthermore, as you describe Europa, then galileo probes parachute would have been useless, the atmosphere is low but not totally so...

      even I usually read the article blurb to the end.

      • by thrich81 (1357561)

        Galileo didn't have a parachute, and didn't soft land anywhere -- it was intentionally burned up in a high speed plunge into Jupiter's atmosphere. Perhaps you are thinking about the Cassini/Huygens probe of Titan, Saturn's largest moon which does have a dense atmosphere. I have to agree with the OP -- there is something not right about a plan to use Europa's practically non-existent atmosphere for this.

    • We've certainly left rovers and probes on other planets, and even intentionally crashed a couple on the moon. But raining hundreds of fingernail-sized chipsats on Europa kind of seems like cosmic littering. The debris from previous exploration missions have always felt large enough that we could go and pick it up if we were inclined (or capable) to do so. I know the truth is probably as bad or worse than this Europa mission, and I've probably subconsciously ignored that truth, but this just seems so willful

    • Yep. Big fail here.
      "Hundreds of these probes, the size of human fingernails, would float down on Europa's atmosphere to be scattered about its surface."

      Europa doesn't have an atmosphere.

      Often this kind of thing is only a misunderstanding in the summary, but, no, checking the article, that's what it says.
      Sorry, no.

      • They meant Europe (in Dutch: Europa). Small typo, happens to everybody.
        Europe does have an atmosphere.
        To save on launch cost they'll bring the cubesat by plane.
        The rest of the 1 billion is beer and pizza money.

    • by thrich81 (1357561)

      That's the first thing I thought of too while reading the article. Usually some plan with such an obvious flaw doesn't make it past the press release editing at legitimate labs. Something odd is going on -- I'm waiting to see the reaction of the planetary science community, and either a "correction" issued or I stand by to be amazed at some facet of the physics of tenuous atmospheres which I did not know about.

  • Since they do research for all mankind, but are mostly funded with American taxpayer dollars, they should start some kind of global donation program. I would love to chip in a bit for research like this. Maybe it will only bring in a few million dollars, which is peanuts compared to a billion dollars, but it could help the science cause anyway.
  • If this gets launched, it should be to "Europa - The Final Countdown". :P
  • And how will you power said cube sat and chip sats? You're way out at Jupiter, where sunlight is a bit scarce and you're in orbit around the planet, meaning what sunlight you have is not available for the entire orbit as you pass into eclipse. Oh, and you have to transmit the data with more than a few milliwatts of RF; you're way out at Jupiter, ~350M miles is close approach. It works in Earth's orbit because sunlight is much more intense and you only have to communicate over a few hundred miles distance
  • Cool idea then, cool idea now.
  • It's not clear from the summary (or the linked article), but this isn't a mission at this point. This is a concept selected for Phase I study. [nasa.gov]

    From the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) news release [nasa.gov]:
    "NIAC Phase I awards are approximately $100,000, providing awardees the funding needed to conduct a nine-month initial definition and analysis study of their concepts. If the basic feasibility studies are successful, proposers can apply for Phase II awards, which provide up to $500,000 for two more years o

  • But The Atlantic said "a small satellite about as large as a half-gallon of milk". I may be confused here, but at that ambient pressure, wouldn't that launched half-gallon of milk turn into a very much larger volume of water vapour, plus half a cup of freeze-dried milk solids? Just what would that volume be? Conversely, if it was a half-gallon at insertion, we're talking a fractional-droplet of milk at launch. So which is it?

    Ya gotta love it when Americans try to talk down to each other about stuff t
  • So... exactly why is it so "hard" to do this for under $1B? Launch costs are well known and are a small fraction of $1B. We have now sent dozens of probes to the planets so at the least the guidance and exterior should be well known. What else is left? Are instrumentation and mission support? Are we really needing to reinvent the wheel for each new mission? Is it that difficult to re-use (or at least upgrade) existing sensors and cameras?

    All of this should be put out to worldwide bid.

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