In the late 2020s, NASA plans to send a probe to Jupiter's moon Europa to determine if there's oceanic life beneath its crust. Before then, Draper Laboratory hopes that its novel sensor system of CubeSats, satellites smaller than a shoebox, and postage-stamp size sensors, called ChipSats, could be the basis of a complementary $10 million mission to inform the big 2020 effort, expected to cost $2 billion. Draper's idea is that CubeSats could be delivered to Europa's orbit to identify areas on the moon with the thinnest ice. As data comes in about what's below, the CubeSats would then dump hundreds of the tiny ChipSats onto the moon's surface. Those ChipSats would then identify the best location for the later NASA probe to penetrate the surface. (Insert requisite "2010: Odyssey Two" reference here.) From Draper Laboratory, developers of the system:
Initial indications suggest that (ChipSats') small size and lack of moving parts may make them highly capable of surviving impact on a planetary surface without any dedicated protection system, (Draper researcher Brett) Streetman said. The low cost of ChipSats would enable scientists to use a large batch, reducing the consequences of losing some upon impact, he said.
Additionally, this capability could provide a quick-response solution for researchers who study events on Earth that are difficult to predict, and thus difficult to reach quickly with personnel and in-situ sensors, such as volcanic eruptions and algae blooms, said John West, who leads advanced concepts and technology development in Draper's space systems group.