Europa, Jupiter’s tantalizing ice moon, is one of the most promising places to search for extraterrestrial life in the solar system. Though this frozen world is smaller than the Moon, evidence suggests it hosts more liquid water than all of Earth’s oceans combined, prompting imaginative visions of alien space whales and other potential creatures that might roam the moon’s subsurface seas.
It’s no wonder Europa has become a popular target for surface exploration by scientists and casual space fans alike. To that end, NASA commissioned an extensive report outlining a strategy for touching down on the moon, which was delivered to the agency in February. But the Trump administration promptly axed the lander weeks later in its 2018 budget outline, opting to limit funding to flybys.
But be comforted, Europa enthusiasts, because NASA has another lander concept in the works, and it is downright adorable.
Called the Nano Icy Moons Propellant Harvester (NIMPH), the lander concept is the brainchild of Colorado-based company ExoTerra Resource, LLC, and was selected for development by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program in April 2016.
The idea is to drop off a CubeSat-scale microlander, about one liter in volume, to Europa’s surface. What NIMPH lacks in size it makes up for in resourcefulness, because instead of schlepping gas out to Europa, the lander would be equipped with a system to harvest propellant out from its ice-rich surroundings.
Samples collected from Europa—or any icy world—could be blasted back to Earth by the diminutive probe, with a modest price tag compared to previous lander concepts.
“The NIMPH system combines in situ resource utilization, miniaturization, [and] electric propulsion,” said ExoTerra Resource President Michael VanWoerkom at the NIAC symposium in 2016. “We also looked at ways to reuse assets that we’ve already put in orbit in order to reduce the cost of these missions and return samples from any icy surface.”
Imagine the excitement of waiting on a package to be delivered from Europa, home of speculative alien cetaceans. Hopefully NIMPH, or a lander like it, can secure enough funding to make it happen over the coming decades.