“Touchdown,” said Verena.
A huge roar burst out among the scientists, engineers, administrators, managers, investors and consultants. Champagne was poured, highs were fived, and heavenly praises echoed around the large room that was mission control.
“We did it,” she shouted, “we beat those boastful Americans and the sly Chinese.” The room cheered again and the fidgeting reporters were ushered in.
“How much longer until deployment?” she asked. The technician spun in his chair and moved to a minimised window, reading off some values and doing a quick calculation in his head.
“Good, time for a drink or three then.”
Most of the people in the room had nothing left to do. The mission was going like clockwork and everything was fully automated. They kept themselves busy by partying and following the slow action on the myriad screens all around the room.
“Deployment,” someone said at last.
Everybody paused and looked up at the large wallscreen at the front of the room. Video streams from several onboard cameras relayed the scene with a forty-minute delay. Other smaller windows displayed readouts such as power levels, temperature, diagnostics and other important information.
The bottom half of the main screen was dominated by the smooth, white, featureless, frozen sea that extended across the entire surface of the Jovian moon. Above the perfectly flat horizon was the cold black expanse of space, the scattering of bright stars ending abruptly where the dark side of Jupiter began. The other cameras showed the scene from different directions; some displaying the lander, others focussing on the probe itself.
It was being lowered onto the ice, a large squat cylinder, entirely black except for the crisscrossed silver strips that laced the edges. The lander was lowering it onto the surface at a centimetre per minute. Verena chewed her lip. Slowly does it, nice and steady. There was no room for error on this mission. There could be no failure. Too much was riding on this one. She tried to relax, telling herself once again that the dangerous nail-biting part was over. The landing had been textbook, as soft as a feather.
It’s smooth sailing from here, she thought. The cylinder’s main task was simple: get hot and sink. A basketball-sized nuclear generator would create heat and pass it along to the outer surface to melt the surrounding ice. Then the heavy probe would sink and the water would refreeze above it. It just had to do that through fifteen miles of ice and then it would reach liquid water.
Liquid water out in such a dim wasteland, where the sun is merely a very bright star. An underground ocean, trapped forever beneath a frozen surface and kept liquid by gravitational pressures and the incessant kneading from its nearby master, Jupiter.
Once the probe reached its destination, it would open up to release several underwater rovers. These devices would explore the area and send data back to the cylinder, which would relay it up to the lander and from there it would be sent back to eager ears on earth. Nothing could go wrong now. Nothing.
“What the hell?” said the technician, staring at readouts and radar visualisations. “It can’t be.”
“What’s that you say?” asked Verena, interrupting her BBC interview and twisting around.
“There’s… there appears to be a problem. The probe has stopped.”
She smiled and came over, waving a hand at the camera crew to signify a break. “What are you on about now Simon?”
“It’s stopped, it’s stopped sinking,” he said, flustered. He loosened his tie and rubbed his temples. Verena peered over his shoulder and stared at the data, immediately losing her smile.
“It can’t be an object, there’s nothing but ice down there. It must be something else.” She barked a few orders and soon the room was back to its pre-touchdown state; everybody staring nervously at their screens.
There was no doubt about it, the probe had stopped its descent.
Some of the best minds in Europe were on the team and they got straight to work on the problem. Other experts in a variety of fields were soon called in to help. They checked and rechecked their equations and data, ran diagnostics, simulations and scenarios, but alas, no answers could be found.
“Theoretically there shouldn’t be anything that large in the ice,” said a wiry scientist with Einsteinian hair, “certainly nothing larger than a pebble.” Verena noticed that he was blinking and swallowing too much.
“I don’t care about your theories,” she growled, “give me something practical, we need to keep sinking.”
The man skulked away and Verena slammed her fists on the console.
Questions were asked and hypotheses were formulated. Ideas were proposed and discussed before finally being shot down. There was nothing they could do. They had not planned for this eventuality because conventional scientific wisdom said it was impossible. Nobody had given her any plausible theories of the cause of the problem, or practical solutions to circumvent it. She was out of choices and there was nothing more she could do.
“All right everybody,” she sighed, holding back her tears of frustration. “Shut it down.”
Grrrthuk beat her claws against the icy walls and cursed the frozen sky. She swam over to the display and stared at the charts. Damn! The scientists had assured her this probe would work. They had been designing it for years. It may have been an extremely complex device but the idea was simple enough. It would melt its way up through the ice to whatever lay beyond. The scientists had checked their numbers and the data from sensors hundreds of times; there should be nothing in the ice. But there was, a mysterious object, as large as the probe, lying directly in its path. There was no choice but to stop; there was nothing more to be done.
“All right everybody,” she pinged, “shut it down.”