Europlanet Science Congress 2022
Palacio de Congresos de Granada, Spain
18 – 23 September 2022
Europlanet Science Congress 2022
Palacio de Congresos de Granada, Spain
18 September – 23 September 2022
EPSC Abstracts
Vol. 16, EPSC2022-760, 2022
Europlanet Science Congress 2022
© Author(s) 2022. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Enabling Subsurface Exploration of Ocean Worlds: Technology Developments for Sending Signals Through the Ice (STI) 

Kate Craft1, Emily Asenath-Smith2, Robert Coker1, Christopher German3, Michael Jakuba3, Rudi Lien4,1, Ralph Lorenz1, Christine McCarthy5, G. Wesley Patterson1, Alyssa Rhoden6, Herman Sequeira1, Mathew Silvia3, Vishaal Singh5, Robert Stilwell1, and Matthew Walker7
Kate Craft et al.
  • 1Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (
  • 2US Army Corps ERDC/Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL)
  • 3Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
  • 4University of Oregon
  • 5Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
  • 6Southwest Research Institute, Boulder
  • 7Planetary Science Institute

Introduction: After orbiting and landing on an ocean world such as Europa or Enceladus, the next step will be to “rove”. However, rather than traveling along the surface, a cryobot probe would instead vertically traverse in order to reach the ocean and explore for signs of life. Many challenges exist for technologies to function within the harsh conditions at ocean worlds, including extreme temperatures, pressures, faulting, and the presence of potentially corrosive chemicals. Yet, these must be overcome. In order to return valuable science and engineering data, cryobot communication devices must be capable of transmitting data after deployment through ice shells of a few to 10s of km thick, and over mission lifetimes of several years.

A strategy for cryobot communication that employs both optical tethers coupled with radio frequency (RF) relays has been suggested as part an ocean world cryobot mission architecture (e.g. Oleson et al., 2019). Here we present work on a NASA Concepts for Ocean worlds Life Detection Technology (COLDTech) project called Signals Through the Ice (STI) Tech for Ocean Worlds (OW), that builds on previous NASA SESAME STI work, to develop communication hardware solutions (e.g. Craft et al., 2022).

Technology developments: Building on previous characterizations of optical tether robustness shear testing (Singh et al, 2022& in review; McCarthy et al., this meeting), RF relay antenna design (Lorenz et al, 2022), and modeling efforts to characterize Europa’s ice shell conditions (Walker et al., 2020), the OW STI Tech team is expanding efforts to consider conditions at Enceladus and other factors affecting cryobot communication technologies.

Optical Tethers. A main hazard for tethered communication is the potential faulting activity inducing strain on the tether and causing data transmission reduction, or even severance the tether. Numerical models have been performed to simulate fault slip resulting from tidal forcing at multiple time points during one Europa tidal cycle. Calculations at multiple time points allow consideration of motion throughout the orbital cycle and evaluates the accumulation of strain on a tether crossing a fault at a range of different strikes, angles, and depths (Lien et al., 2022 & in prep). Calculations have also been performed to constrain Europa's deformation induced by tidal forcing and how it affects the thermal equilibrium state of the ice shell (Walker and Rhoden, 2022). Improving our understanding of the temperature and heat profiles within ice shells provides important estimates of the specific temperature and pressure environments both tethered and RF technologies will encounter on their journey through an ice shell.

Also, a factor not yet constrained for ocean worlds is how a tether’s jacket material would potentially adhere to the ice. This ice-tether behavior would influence the resulting strain induced on the optical fibers during fault motion. Adhesion tests and design trades on candidate jacket and strength layer materials are in progress with a focus on making improvements for Europa and Enceladus temperatures, strain, and chemical conditions. Additionally, tethers are undergoing environmental chamber “soaks”, with tethers embedded in ice of different compositions for months. Material degradation and transmission performance is measured during and upon removal.

RF relays. An initial RF relay thermo-mechanical design is undergoing evaluation to assess if the essential elements that must be housed and thermally insulated in an Europa or Enceladus ice shell can be kept at the necessary operational conditions. Essential components include batteries, power/heating elements, electronics, and antennas. Prototypes are being built and will undergo thermal and mechanical environmental tests (including thermal balance and rapid & cyclic loading).

Summary: Development of optical tethers and RF relay devices for communication through ice on ocean worlds is underway by the OW STI Tech team. Through modeling of the extreme conditions at Europa and Enceladus, design and build of prototypes, and thermo-mechanical testing, these technologies will be robust to the environmental conditions and will therefore enable the search for extraterrestrial life in the subsurface of ocean worlds.

Acknowledgments: We would like to acknowledge funding from grants 80NSSC19K0613 and 80NSSC21K0995 for this work.


Craft et al. (2022) 53rd LPSC, Abstract #2753.

Lien et al. (2022) AbSciCon, Abstract #518-05.

Lorenz et al. (2022) NETS, May, 2022, Cleveland.

Oleson et al. (2019) Europa Tunnelbot, NASA/TP—2019-220054.

Singh et al. (2022) AbSciCon, Abstract #518-02.

Walker and Rhoden (2022), PSJ, accepted.

Walker et al. (2020) 51st LPSC, Abstract #2448.

How to cite: Craft, K., Asenath-Smith, E., Coker, R., German, C., Jakuba, M., Lien, R., Lorenz, R., McCarthy, C., Patterson, G. W., Rhoden, A., Sequeira, H., Silvia, M., Singh, V., Stilwell, R., and Walker, M.: Enabling Subsurface Exploration of Ocean Worlds: Technology Developments for Sending Signals Through the Ice (STI) , Europlanet Science Congress 2022, Granada, Spain, 18–23 Sep 2022, EPSC2022-760,, 2022.


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