nuclear-powered search for life

Not so long ago, NASA’s now-defunct Galileo mission found hints that some of Jupiter’s moons held oceans of liquid water beneath their frozen crusts, sparking the question, if they harbor water, do they harbor life? To help answer that question, NASA is proposing to launch a new unmanned spacecraft to Jupiter that will orbit, one after another, three of its planet-sized moons (Callisto, Ganymede, and Europa) that are suspected of having subsurface oceans. The Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, or JIMO, will contain a uranium-fueled, nuclear-fission reactor that will power the huge craft and its array of scientific equipment. JIMO will be outfitted with high-resolution cameras and radar to help penetrate deep into the icy crusts and allow extensive, detailed mapping of the surfaces of the moons. According to NASA, the onboard nuclear reactor would generate an unprecedented 100 times more electrical power than any current interplanetary probe, allowing JIMO to send back more data than previous unmanned missions. Some activists oppose the idea, fearing an explosion during launch. If funding is approved, the craft is scheduled for takeoff sometime after 2011.

This news brief appeared in the Random Data column of the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 12/16/2003.
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