Scientists at University College London have designed a 44-pound bullet that could gather scientific information on Jupiter’s moon Europa. Last week, a prototype of the bullet slammed through a 10-tonne block of ice, an important test for a future mission to the icy moon. Now, the European Space Agency has decided to throw its weight behind the odd project.
The penetrator (yep, that’s its name. Moving on…) would launch from a satellite orbiting Europa and lodge itself a few meters into the moon’s ice. Despite its militaristic appearance, the penetrator is really a research vessel designed to carry seismometers and other scientific equipment. These sensors could relay information back to the satellite and, from there, back to Earth. Multiple penetrators could be fired from a single satellite, covering Europa in ballistic impact wounds and scientific collection tools, which combined would paint a more complete picture of the moon.
Bullet-carried sensors have limitations: size constraints, a lack of mobility, and likely a very limited lifespan while on the surface of the moon. They make up for that, however, by not needing the elaborate soft landing systems designed to protect more sensitive explorers, like the Mars rover Curiosity.
The technology is expected to take a decade to develop fully, but when it does, it might finally answer one of the great mysteries of our solar system: is there life below the ice of Europa? (And if so, how does it feel about being shot at by bullets?)