Draper Laboratory artist concept of the envisioned mission to Jupiter's moon Europa. Credit: Draper Laboratory

Draper Laboratory artist concept of the envisioned mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa.
Credit: Draper Laboratory

Jupiter’s moon Europa could fall under the intense scrutiny of tiny spacecraft making use of “cold atom sensing technology.”

That’s a new idea by Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Mass – a concept that won a $100,000 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program award earlier this month.

Draper Laboratory is developing the low-cost concept for NASA that could accelerate the space agency’s ability to explore other planets by combining initial orbiting survey missions and follow-on landing studies into a single mission.

The idea is to use a small cubesat to take gravity measurements over Jupiter’s moon Europa to spot areas of interest – like water – and then eject a batch of tiny ChipSats to land and take close observations and samples on the surface.

Lack of moving parts

A Draper press statement notes that gravity measurements today are generally taken by two spacecraft flying near a planetary body. As the body’s gravitational forces pull on them, the relative drift between the two spacecraft is measured.

Jupiter's Europa could be site for water...and life? Credit: NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk

Jupiter’s Europa could be site for water…and life?
Credit: NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk

These measurements are then used to map the gravitational field of the planetary body’s surface, which can be used to look for water and other items of interest that inform planning for future missions that may take place years later.

ChipSats — which have not been used for planetary surface exploration — may be well suited for the task as their lack of moving parts may make them highly capable of surviving impact on a planetary surface.

The low cost of ChipSats could also enable NASA to use a large batch, reducing the consequences of losing some upon impact.


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