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The ice of a distant moon

Piercing Europa’s frigid shell to search for life below

By
2:00pm, May 2, 2014
Europa

CRACKING EUROPA'S SHELL  Beneath the icy layer cloaking Jupiter’s fourth-largest moon, Europa, scientists believe a vast ocean and a geologically active seafloor could potentially hold habitats for life. Several groups have begun devising ways to burrow beneath Europa’s frozen surface.

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On an unusually hot summer day in Wales, Sanjay Vijendran and colleagues aimed a rocket sled at an elephant-sized ice cube.

The sled rested on a raised metal track and carried what looked like a cartoon bundle of TNT to propel the contraption at the speed of sound. In front of it, a second sled held a bullet-shaped canister packed with scientific instruments.

Vijendran, a physicist at the European Space Agency, was ready to hurl the canister into a 6,200-kilogram block of ice, at the U.K.’s Ministry of Defense site in Pendine.

With chain saws on hand in case the canister got stuck, researchers watched the sleds hurtle down the track, launching the canister into the air at more than 340 meters per second. It flew the length of a school bus and then punched almost clear through the 3-meter-long frozen block, spraying geysers of snowy ice chips.

“It was all over in less than two seconds,” Vijendran says

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