Europa is a fascinating place. Once it was believed that Jupiter’s moons were just lumps of ice and rock. But missions to Jupiter showed us that there is more to Jupiter’s moons than we thought.
This moon has become much more interesting the more it is explored. The furthest we have got nowadays is to have a very good guess that there is an ocean below about 100 km of ice. Future missions are in the balance and one was scrapped due to NASA’s change in direction towards commercialism of space which will in the future make much more sense than the present program but unfortunately will delay things a little.
Let’s take a jump into the future beyond the exploration of unmanned probes to Europa and think what it would be like to actually colonise this moon. The Artemis society which is home of the Artemis project has plans to colonise the moon. This is obviously an advanced idea but an interesting idea nevertheless. This thinking has extended to Europa as it looks very much like a good place to settle if the problems can be overcome. The colonisation plan covers almost everything including how to build communities in air pockets to what would be the best films to be sent (obviously 2001 a space Odyssey and the follow-ups).
There are a few sceptics to this plan and this plan is well ahead of its time but in the future things like this will occur but who knows how long into the future we will have to wait? The main problem is the radiation as a human would only be able to last about 10 minutes on the surface. About 6 foot beneath the surface of the ice the ice would provide shielding from the radiation, so it would be a pretty tense time on the surface trying to drill down 6 feet quickly before your arms fell off. The Artemis Society get around this problem by assuming that technology in the future will be able to provide electromagnetic shielding.
Without bringing a massive lead shield from Earth which is completely impossible and extremely inefficient there is another way round this problem. Callisto has been proposed as a moon outside the radiation belt of Jupiter where a staging base could be built. The ice on Callisto could be mined and then shaped around the ship so that an orbit around Europa would not be instantly fatal.
That’s not the only problem though as you might imagine. The temperature is low at -170°C on the surface and you would need more than a good set of thermals to overcome this unbelievably cold obstacle. This may not be as bad as it seems as the ice surface could produce a shield once drilled through. Th warm heat is due to tidal heating which is the constant pull and push of Jupiter’s gravity on Europa as it orbits the massive gas giant heating up the core Hydrothermal vents are thought to exist on the seabed of the ocean, as they do on Earth.
As we have noticed on Earth life doesn’t need the light from the Sun for photosynthesis for survival. Organisms may live around hydrothermal vents and these may be at the bottom of the food chain for much larger oceangoing animals. This news would be excellent for mankind as a whole but for the colonists it could be a food source and a potential export rivalling Japanese sushi. Harmful microbes may exist though and cause some weird and wonderful diseases. If life exists then intelligent life could exist although this is a bit of a long shot and that could in the long run cause territorial disputes or be perhaps beneficial in some way.
The human body is quite frail when looking round for places to colonise and it doesn’t do too well in low gravity environments. The larger the moon or planet the larger the gravity and therefore Europa is only big enough to produce 13.4% of Earth’s gravity. Over time the muscles in the body will waste away and the skeleton will slowly deteriorate. Fluid will be redistributed around the bodies systems and the cardiovascular system will slow down which will weaken the immune system. Other less dramatic effects on the human body are loss of body mass, a stuffy nose, disturbed sleep and farting (yes, really). Ethical questions also come into play with the possibility of life on Europa. It would be a disaster to infect any life and destroy it as this may be our only contact for an extremely long time.
There is a small tenuous atmosphere around Europa consisting of a trace of oxygen. This is produced from charged particles from Jupiter breaking up the ice into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen molecules. The much lighter hydrogen molecules drift off into space but the oxygen molecules stay around Europa. This could be an advantage if the oxygen could be captured and used for life support although I expect most of the oxygen needed will be produced from the breakdown of water into hydrogen and oxygen.
So what is the basic plan for colonisation? From the above you can see that there is a need to drill down through the ice from a small shielded (by ice) base on the surface. The colonists would drill down until they reach the ocean which could be as much as 100 km below the ice. An underground cavern would then be excavated or perhaps even found and would be an excellent place for a long-term base due to the protection from radiation and higher temperatures.
A big problem with the idea of colonising Europa is that it would just not be a money earner even with sushi exported back to Earth. Until the cost of spaceflight and cheap ways to survive in space are found this idea is on the edge of science fiction. Of course if there was positive signs of life on Europa then things would change rapidly, let’s hope so.