Melting ice cores on frozen worlds could speed up the search for alien life

Scientists are always finding new ways to search for life on other worlds, whether directly through chemical analysis or indirectly through satellite imagery. Such examples include various landers and rovers to the Moon and Mars, as well as ongoing scientific research conducted from planetary orbiters. But what if we could search for life and better understand the history of these mysterious and intriguing worlds using ice deposits?

One such proposed technology is the Ice Sublimator Melter (MSIS), which, as its name suggests, examines ice cores for chemical, biological, and elemental analysis in the hope of not only providing more detailed information about planetary bodies like the Moon. , Mars, Europa, Enceladus, but could also allow us to better understand supernovae and space weather through the collection of cosmogenic nuclides, rare isotopes created by cosmic rays.

The proposed missions to explore ice cores are not new, with some suggesting drilling or melting it down to its target. The purpose of the MSIS will not be to drill or heat the sample, but to process and examine the ice sample after it has been retrieved.

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“MSIS uses two ice core pretreatment methods, melting and sublimation, which can be used in combination,” Alexander Chipps, a Georgia Tech mechanical engineering student and lead author of the study, told Space. com in an email. “The melter contains heating elements that turn on when the core is melted through the melting head. The melting head was designed to separate the outer, contaminated surface of the core (due to the extraction and processing of ice cores) from the clean interior. The sublimator allows the ice core to be pre-concentrated by applying a vacuum to the core that causes the ice to turn into water vapor while keeping the other contents of the core in a reduced volume. In its current state, MSIS requires manual loading of an ice core sample.”

The current MSIS design allows for 1.3″ by 1.3″ ice sticks to be sheltered, with the melter and sublimator being the two main components. The melter provides individual access to the inner, middle and outer core of the ice stick, dividing the ice stick into three cross-sections when melted, ultimately reducing the chance of contamination. A sublimator mounted on the melter would be able to perform in situ analysis of materials or sample residues returned to Earth through a process called preconcentration. This will ease the complex processes that have traditionally been necessary both for storing and returning large samples to Earth.

“To my knowledge, MSIS is the first ice melter type instrument that has been designed with the operational considerations of the space environment in mind,” Chipps told in an email. “Of course, there is still a lot of development ahead, but I think that MSIS technology can play a key role in the study of astrobiology.”

A close-up of the terrain of Europe taken by the Galileo spacecraft in 1998. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute)

While the study mentions how MSIS “could contribute to the Artemis 3 demonstrations,” including extracting oxygen and hydrogen from lunar ice for life support systems, Chipps notes that “there are no official agreements to include MSIS technology in a space mission.” .

If MSIS can ever achieve space mission status, the researchers believe it could be used to solve fundamental questions about the geological and volcanic history of Mars, or to perform wet chemistry analyzes on Europa or Enceladus.

For now, MSIS remains in the lab, but researchers are already thinking about future designs for this unique ice-handling device.

“Our next steps are to further characterize and improve the smelter to better understand and optimize its performance,” says Dr. Christopher Carr, assistant professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Institute of Technology and co-author. on the study, said in an email. “Turning this prototype into a true space instrument will require a series of steps common to most space instruments, including testing performance under appropriate extreme conditions (cold and low pressure or vacuum) and ensuring it can withstand the rigors of spaceflight.”

“I think it’s important to emphasize how interdisciplinary this project is,” Cassius Tunis, a Georgia Tech student and co-author of the study, told in an email. “Our work includes contributions and considerations from earth/planet science, aerospace engineering, mechanical engineering and biology, to name but a few. We hope this research can improve our collective understanding of the Earth and other planets, as well as make ice science more accessible to a diverse research community.”

The Sublimator Melter for Ice Science (MSIS) study is scheduled to be presented at the IEEE Aerospace Conference. (will open in a new tab) in March 2023.

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