In the latter half of the 2020s, the Big Four developed a number of powerful scientific probes, meant for in depth research of the outer planets of the solar system, as well as the eyes and ears of humanity to find even more artifacts that could be out there.
The discovery of two alien species hiding out at Saturn only increased humanities desire to get to known their own solar system better.
While the Asteroid Belt was the prime target of manned exploration and a number of mined out asteroids were discovered, Jupiter, the largest planet in the Sol system, was visited for the first time since the Mariner Jupiter-Uranus-Neptune probes in the early 1980s.
Probes of the Big Four entered orbit around Jupiter in 2029 and began with missions of scientific observation and reconnaissance of the planets moons.
The NASA mission to Jupiter, Juno, and the ESA mission, Galileo, launched atmospheric probes into the atmosphere of Jupiter, which returned valuable data that helped scientists understand more about the giant planet.
The Juno Atmospheric Research Probe happened to be the first probe to enter the atmosphere of the planet just inside the Big Red Spot, while Hooke, the European atmospheric probe entered at equatorial attitudes and returned different data.
These two smaller probes were not the only ones to be carried by the larger probes. The Big Four had actually agreed on who would land a probe on any of the Galilean moons.
The Soviet Union, with good experience on radiation shielding and the extreme environments of Venus, were more than willing to prove the superiority of Soviet science to the west and selected Io as their target.
Io 1 landed on the surface in March 2030, managing to avoid most volcanoes on the moon and landing in a seismically unstable region, where it began a battery of scientific tests, before being destroyed three months later during a quake when it was caught in a landslide.
The Chinese had chosen Callisto as their target and their probe, Mù wèi sì, touched down on the moon in June 2030. The readings of the probe discovered that there was a sort of ocean beneath the icy surface of the moon, though it was most likely an icy sludge.
The dark colored surface ice of Callisto contained many organic compounds as well as silicates and other remains of meteorite impacts over the ages. Additionally the probe detected an extremely thin atmosphere of carbon dioxide and even molecular oxygen.
Based on the data of Mù wèi sì, the Estévez Group concluded that the moon was the best place for a permanent human presence in the Jovian system.
Ganymede was the target of the NASA exploration. Marius landed in the Uruk Sulcus region on the moon in April 2030. Much like Callisto, Ganymede had an ocean of warm icy sludge beneath its icy shell. The moon’s atmosphere was slightly thicker than that of Callisto, but still extremely thin.
Radiation from Jupiter turned out to be extremely strong and prohibited surface settlements on the moon, making it unlikely to receive more than a few sporadic visitors in the future.
The smallest of the Galilean moons, Europa, was the target of the European landing mission. Even though plans had been to equip the lander Columbus with a system to drill through the icy mantle of Europa and explore the ocean beneath, the plans had to be scrapped based on the mass budget for the lander.
ESA counted themselves to be lucky however as they managed to detect a fresh lineae on the surface of Europa and decided to try their luck by landing close to it. On May 2030, Columbus landed on Europa, gently settling down on an ice sheet directly on the lineae. One of the legs cracked the surface and showed liquid water pouring through, but freezing immediately.
This marked the most important discovery about Europa to the date. There was an ocean of liquid water beneath the surface of Europa and and to optimize future scientific missions, landings would occur in or near similar lineae to make it easier to get a submarine vehicle to explore the subsurface ocean.
All missions went on nominally near Jupiter, until something remarkable occurred in October 2031. It surprised everyone and caused widespread confusion.
Columbus, programmed to take a panorama image every day to document changes of the surface over time, began returning images showing an unknown object that had broken through the ice near the probe.
The object could only have come from beneath the surface and the probes cameras were ordered to take closer pictures of the unknown object.
The returned high quality images soon surprised scientists all over the world. The object was spherical and appeared to be constructed of iron and brass, with a number of highly artistic inlays on its surface. One lens was also embedded into its surface, with a number of extensions placed near it that moved over the main lens once or twice.
A lower quality video of the sphere showed that something was moving behind the lens with high speed, while the sphere itself released streams of gas in regular intervals. Spectrographic analysis of the gas streams later revealed them to be water steam at about 500 Kelvin.
At first the discovery was kept secret, until the images and connections were verified and the powerful image sensors of Galileo captured the sphere in the same image as Columbus. Based on this image it was possible to measure the sphere at a diameter of about ten meters as well as take several thermal images. Only after this confirmation the information about the sphere was shared with the United States, China and the Soviet Union.
Following a number of talks on how to deal with the discovery, the public was informed about the sphere. It sparked off a massive debate about alien life native to the solar system and whether or not those aliens on Europa couldn’t be refugees like the Turukal and Quetzal, or the remains of a colony like the ruins of Mars.
The sensors of Columbus remained focussed on the sphere, which only released high temperature steam every six hours. An attempt of communication was made, using the robotic arm of Columbus, which had previously been used to collect surface samples for an integrated laboratory, but was soon abandoned as the sphere made no attempt of answering.
There were talks about landing a manned mission on Europa to try and contact the creators of the sphere in person, but these ideas were dropped quickly as the moon was deep within Jupiter’s radiation belt, which could kill a human within a single day of exposure.
On November 5th, the European Union invited everyone to the Europa Conference in Barcelona, to discuss future steps concerning the aliens on Europa.
The Estévez Group used the conference and their Callisto Study of 2030, to suggest the construction of a permanent presence near Jupiter to give humanity the ability to contact the aliens via telepresence. Additionally they suggested that this mission should be carried out internationally, to keep costs down, as well as preventing national interests from getting in the way of contact with the aliens.
The Conference concluded with the formation of the Arcas Project. The goal of the Project was to place a permanently manned station on Callisto, to allow telepresence missions to Europa and opening communication channels to the aliens on the moon.
While the initial planning for Arcas Station began, Lewis & Clark, Marco Polo and Smirnova were recalled from the Asteroid Belt. Additionally the cargo spacecraft Shyust Vertia, berthed at the International Orbital Dock, was rented from the Quetzal for the duration of the mission.
Arcas Station was designed to be placed beneath the surface of Callisto, largely to negate the low radiation from the Io-Jupiter radiation belt that made manned missions to Europa extremely hard.
The heat of a fusion reactor was to be used to melt a large cavity into the ice, about fifty meters beneath the water pumped out. The cavity would then be insulated against the ice with a minimum of temperature bridges into the surrounding ice and a complex of inflatable modules placed inside. A large communication array would be set up on the surface, while a landing site for spacecraft and the fusion reactor were placed about one kilometer away from the actual station.
With the International Orbital Dock and Gateway Station experiences of international cooperation had already been made and many of the problems that had plagued the IOD could already be avoided during the construction of Gateway Station. The Arcas Project made full use of this experience and the actual design and construction of the components, many of which were off the shelves and having been adapted from existing systems, happened relatively quickly.
As Lewis & Clark, Smirnova and Marco Polo returned to Earth in November 2032, the situation on Europa had not changed very much. The sphere was still there and still released jets of steam every six hours.
It changed rapidly on November 20, when Galileo once more passed over the landing site, and a thermal image revealed a new and growing warm spot near the iron and brass sphere.
On November 25 a second sphere broke through the surface of Europa, not far from the first one. Images from Galileo revealed that it was twenty meters in diameter and had molten itself through the surface. The sphere cooled rapidly and showed a certain degree of movement.
The upper part of the second sphere was capable of turning around and housed a number of colored lights on its surface, as well as two lenses and a dark rectangle covered by glass between the lenses.
The rectacle lit up after a while, and the images from Columbus indicated that it showed several blurred images. Only a video of the rectangle showed that the images moved, displaying shaped that somewhat resembled octopods, attempting to communicate with Columbus.
Columbus was not capable of being used for any actual communication with the second sphere and its creators. At best the robotic arm could be used for, was to make simple gestures and movements. Any actual communication could only begin tobe attempted when Arcas Station was completed.
To facilitate an actual communication with the aliens one of three Global Explorer II ROV was acquired from Deep Sea Systems International. The remote controlled submarine was designed for deep sea missions and one of them had been to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. In cooperation with the Big Four, the ROV was refit into the Europa Explorer. Two Stirling Radioisotope Generators would power the vehicle for at least 10 years, while an expert system, programmed by Enthat as well as checked and tested by various oceanographic institutes, controlling it. A number of displays had been placed behind ballistic glass and combined with its cameras, microphones and speakers would allow communication. Communication between the Europa Explorer vehicle and the base station was done wirelessly, using a system that had been developed in the 2000s.
The entire vehicle was cleaned and disinfected to prevent contamination of the Europan water with earth microorganisms and then placed within a heated container filled with an inert nitrogen atmosphere at 50 kPa to prevent any damage from the travel to Europa. The heat would also allow the container to melt through the ice and get the Europa Explorer into free water, as well as act as a receiver station for wireless communication.
The lander itself was an adaption of an unmanned cargo lander used by the Soviets, with an additional communication array and a winch arm to release its payload into the surface of Europa and eventually below it.
By June 2033 the materials and modules of the Arcas Project were complete and the first crew had been selected. The materials were loaded into Lewis & Clark, Smirnova, Marco Polo and Shyust Vertia. Then, by late 2033, they were finally launched towards Jupiter.