Author : Patricia Stewart, Staff Writer
The unmanned Marius Lander (in honor of Simon Marius, the German astronomer who named the four large Jovian moons, and claimed to have discovered them before Galileo) successfully touched down on the icy surface of Europa. After a quick systems check, and notification to Earth Command, the fully autonomous probe began to deploy the scientific instruments that it had carried for six years and four billion kilometers. Of course, there were the unanticipated, but inevitable, glitches (e.g., recorder anomalies, electromagnetic frequency shifts, disrupted communications, etc.). These issues were either fixed, or successfully “worked around.”
The first mission objective was to launch the Nuclear Powered Thermo Boring Probe (NPTBP) as the prerequisite for the exploration of Europa’s subsurface ocean. It was estimated that it would take the NPTBP at least thirty days to penetrate Europa’s five kilometer thick icy crust.
As the NPTBP maliciously melted its way through the ice, Earth scientists were busy analyzing the plethora of data being transmitted from Marius’ extensive instrumentation package. To say the least, the data was puzzling. Tidal fluctuations were less than ten percent of the expected 100 meters. This was interpreted to mean that the moon must be a rigid solid; with a modulus of elasticity five times higher than tungsten carbide. Then the seismology data came in. No evidence of moonquakes. Seismologists could not explain how close approaches to Ganymede and Io did not produce gravitational instabilities in Europa’s structure. As if that weren’t enough, the Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) and Ground Penetrating Sonar (GPS) packages revealed that the ice layer was only about a kilometer thick, and it abruptly terminated at a smooth spherical surface. Neither instrument could penetrate beyond the one-kilometer deep interface. At day six, the NPTBP encountered an obstacle at 987 meters.
After much consternation, the Mission Commander authorized the Boring Team to exceed the thermal design limits of the probe. Although the probe had been designed only to melt through the ice, in theory, the “business end” could be heated to over 2000Â°K. When the thermocouple indicated that the probe tip reached 1341Â°K, the probe began to move downward. However, after a few minutes, telemetry data indicated that the probe was in freefall. A few seconds later, it abruptly stopped. The NPTBP no longer responded to Marius’ commands.
After a great deal more debate, the Mission Commander authorized the Oceanographic Team to lower the tethered Hydrobot down the hole bored by the NPTBP. When the Hydrobot approached the depth of the original obstruction, its forward looking camera revealed that the NPTBP had melted a hole through solid metal, at least one meter thick. In addition, the camera revealed an empty chamber immediately below the metal interface. The scientist could see the NPTBP lying sideways on the “floor,” approximately 20 meters below. The Hydrobot was lowered an additional 18 meters. That’s when the monitor began to show an irregularly shifting image as the camera was being jostled about. Seconds later, there was an image of a large yellow eye with two parallel, black vertical slits, presumably dual pupils. A pair of green eyelids blinked from opposite sides of the eye. Suddenly, the monitor turned black, except for a quickly shrinking white dot in the middle of the screen.