Jupiter moon Europa may have supported some forms of life. This is what NASA will be trying to find out with its "tunnelbot."

Observations from NASA's Galileo spacecraft's flybys of Europa between 1995 and 2003 showed evidence that there could be a liquid ocean beneath the surface of the Jupiter moon. Researchers speculated that this ocean could have microbial or remnants of what was once microbial life.

Scientists generally agree that they need to look for lifeforms underneath the thick, planet-wide ice shell where water comes in contact with a rocky core as this was where biochemical ingredients for life may likely be found. However, one problem they faced was how exactly they could get there and burrow under the ice to collect samples.

Andrew Dombard, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, estimated the thickness of the ice covering the planet to be between 2 to 30 kilometers (1. 2 and 18.6 miles), according to Phys.org.

"[This] is a major barrier any lander will have to overcome in order to access areas we think have a chance of holding biosignatures representative of life on Europa," Dombard said.

Fortunately, they now have a solution to the problem. Dombard and his team presented a nuclear-powered tunneling probe that could potentially solve the problem at the American Geophysical Union meeting in Washington D.C. this week.

They revealed that the tunnelbot can penetrate the ice shell and reach Europa's ocean underneath while carrying devices and instruments that can be used to find signs of life or extinct species. The machine will also evaluate how habitable the ice shell itself is.

The tunnelbot would take samples of ice throughout the shell and the water from whether the ocean meets the ice. It would also look at the underside of the ice to find microbial biofilms. The tunnelbot has also been given the capability of searching "lakes" within the ice shell.

"We didn't worry about how our tunnelbot would make it to Europa or get deployed into the ice," Dombard said. "We just assumed it could get there and we focused on how it would work during descent to the ocean."

Dombard and his spouse, UIC associate professor D'Arcy Meyer-Dombard, work with a group of scientists on the NASA Glenn Research COMPASS team. The group comprises scientists and engineers with different fields of expertise and are tasked with designing technology and solutions for science missions and space exploration.

Among those who also contributed to the tunnelbot concept study are Kathleen Craft from the Applied Physics Laboratory at John Hopkins University and COMPASS team leaders J. Michael Newman and Steven Oleson of the NASA Glenn Research Center.

This doesn't mean, however, that a tunneling mission in Jupiter has also been scheduled and that their design would be chosen for one such endeavor. We will have to wait and see whether the tunnelbot would eventually be able to help scientists study Europa's ocean.