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NASA's 'EELS' Snake Robot Could Slither Across Icy Enceladus

In the perpetual pursuit of discovering life beyond Earth, a team of roboticists has designed an innovative explorer that could one day traverse the frozen surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus and potentially descend into its subsurface ocean in search of biosignatures. The snake-like robot, dubbed EELS (Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor), is the brainchild of researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Carnegie Mellon University. With its serpentine body and corkscrew-spiked segments, EELS is perfectly adapted to tackle the rugged icy terrain on one of the solar system's most tantalizing worlds for potential extraterrestrial life.



"Enceladus has this really challenging icy surface, with plains, ridges pushed up by the moon's geological activity, and craters from meteorite impacts," said JPL's Jonathan Saulet, the lead systems engineer on the EELS project. "We needed to create a robot that could independently navigate and map that extreme landscape while looking for bio-signatures."

At nearly 4 meters long, EELS takes inspiration from nature's expert climbers - snakes. Its modular body consists of a series of articulated joints connecting individual motor-powered segments. Each segment sports spiral-grooved metal "corks" to grip and propel the robot across the ice.

EELS slithers autonomously, using its array of cameras and sensors to chart an optimal path while analyzing surface composition. If it encounters impassable terrain, the robot can reverse and find an alternate route.

But this robotic serpent's most innovative feature may be its warmth. The onboard computer, batteries and heating elements are designed to endure the deep freezing temperatures of Enceladus, which averages -198°C along the equator in the mid-day sun.

"We've gone through multiple thermal cycles from extreme cold to more ambient environments, freeze-thaw testing, and other stresses to make sure EELS could operate in that challenging small body environment," said JPL's Kevin Graves, software lead on the project.

Lab testing has simulated Enceladus' icy conditions using facilities such as JPL's Mars Yard and the Athabasca Glacier in the Canadian Rockies. The EELS prototype has demonstrated its mobility and resilience in these arctic analogs as the team preps for more extreme field trials ahead.

Enceladus has captured the intense scientific interest ever since NASA's Cassini probe detected emanations of water vapor and ice particles from the moon's southern pole in 2005, suggesting the presence of a liquid subsurface ocean.

By 2015, gravitational measurements from Cassini strongly pointed to a regional sea underneath an icy shell spanning 20-25 km thick. This global ocean, maintained by tidal forces and heat from the moon's core, could potentially harbor conditions suitable for basic lifeforms similar to those found near hydrothermal vents on Earth.

While Cassini only provided fleeting glimpses, an Enceladus lander mission would allow more extensive robotic exploration of potentially habitable extraterrestrial environments for the first time.

"Enceladus is considered one of the best opportunities in our cosmic backyard to find present-day life beyond Earth," said Saulet. "With EELS, we could potentially explore the moon's surface and even descend through the plumes and into the subsurface ocean below to hunt for biosignatures of extant life."

Sophisticated instruments on future EELS models could sniff out amino acids, study geochemistry, and potentially even collect samples for analysis. Engineers are also investigating how the robot could be optimized to enter the ocean through fissures and vents while withstanding high pressures.

Inevitably, any such ambitious life-detection mission to Enceladus remains at least 10-15 years away, pending funding approval and the usual development cadence for interplanetary robotic explorers.

But the initial promise of EELS and other prospective multi-billion dollar Enceladus missions underscores NASA's prioritization to seek out habitable environments and biosignatures within our own solar system, alongside the loftier aspirations of eventually exploring exoplanets.

"Enceladus represents one of the most compelling opportunities in planetary science today," said Saulet. "Life beyond Earth may have first emerged in an ocean world, and EELS could let us explore that possibility firsthand."

As EELS continues its rigorous testing regime, the innovative snake robot inches closer to being deployment-ready to potentially unlock profound insights into whether biological life indeed extends its tendrils across the solar system and into the subsurface seas of icy moons.

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