Life on Enceladus? Europa Eyes astronomical mission to Saturn’s ocean moon

Europa could be heading to Saturn’s moon Enceladus in the search for life, according to a new report from planetary scientists eyeing a future large-scale mission to the outer solar system.

The IS European Space Agency (ESA) is taking a significant step forward with its “Voyager 2050” program, which describes the scientific goals and missions for the middle of this century. Its overarching theme is “moons of the Solar system” was selected in 2021, and now an expert report has suggested that Enceladus should be the main target.

Enceladus it is an icy moon 309 miles wide (498 kilometers). Saturn. In 2006, the Cassini mission discovered that huge plumes of water vapor are pouring out from deep fractures in the surface, nicknamed “tiger stripes,” located near the south pole of Enceladus. The plumes are the result of Saturn’s gravity stretching and pushing into the interior of Enceladus like putty, injecting energy into it the mooninside to keep water liquid in global oceans and periodically expel some of that water through the tiger’s stripes, like squeezing water out of a bottle.

Related: Saturn’s Moons: Facts about the planet’s weird and wonderful satellites

ESA convened a 12-person panel of planetary scientists from across Europe, chaired by Zita Martins, an astronomer at the Instituto Superior Técnico in Portugal, to assess the science that could be gained from going on towards Enceladus, a common satellite of Saturn. Titan or the Jupiter sea ​​moon Europe. Meanwhile, engineers at ESA’s Concurrent Design Facility (CDF) explored what kind of missions would be most realistic given current and future technologies.

“It is scientifically and technologically challenging, but very exciting to search for habitable conditions and signatures of life in the solar system, but it is very exciting,” said Martins in a. press release.

In terms of science and technology, Enceladus came out on top, followed by Titan and then Europa.

Enceladus has all the ingredients necessary for a habitable environment. Liquid water – check. Organic molecules – check. Source of chemical energy to fuel life — check.

The report suggests that a mission to Enceladus (or Titan) would consist of both an orbiter and a lander. They would be sent separately on Ariana 6 rockets and then rendezvous i World orbit before going to Saturn. Once there, they would make several flybys of Saturn’s other moons that could harbor oceans, for example Dione, Mimi’s and Rheabefore they close in on their target, Enceladus or Titan.

rows of canyons and peaks stretch vertically across an endless landscape surface.  Plumes of white mist shine from the depths of the most beautiful canyon.  A crescent planet is a scene in the dark starry sky near the upper left of center, with a small bright star shining in the lower left.

rows of canyons and peaks stretch vertically across an endless landscape surface. Plumes of white mist shine from the depths of the most beautiful canyon. A crescent planet is a scene in the dark starry sky near the upper left of center, with a small bright star shining in the lower left.

If Enceladus were chosen, the lander would make contact in the south polar region near the tiger stripes and collect samples of the ocean that has snow returned to the surface from the plumes. Alternatively, if GSE wanted to forego the lander for budgetary reasons, the orbiter could fly through the plumes and sample material that way. This has been done before, with the Cassini spacecraft. Although Cassini’s instruments were unable to detect life, it found organic molecules from the ocean within the plumes.

A lander as part of the Titan mission would aim to crash into an empty lake bed that seasonally fills with liquid hydrocarbons such as ethane and methane, and sample the sediments there. However, getting into low-Titan orbit where an orbiter could also sample the moon’s upper atmosphere is challenging because of the significant delta-v (change in velocity) required, which would require a more complex spacecraft with larger fuel reserves, which increase accordingly. the mass sending.

That is also worth pointing out NASA is already developing a mission to Titan, which is scheduled for a quadcopter called Dragonfly launched in 2028 to explore the skies and surface of the great moon. Also, while Titan has the organic chemistry that could assemble the building blocks of life, the moon’s astrobiological potential has recently been questioned in research that suggests organic matter is not enough from the surface its ocean would reach underground.

Related: Titan: Facts about Saturn’s largest moon


— Finding life on Saturn’s moon Enceladus might be easier than we thought

— Saturn’s moon Enceladus has all the ingredients for life in its icy oceans. But is there life?

— This snake robot could hunt alien life on icy moons like Saturn’s Enceladus

Clip Europe which will explode in October 2024, will already make the most of the science that can be done from Europa’s major sites. To significantly advance the science Europa can do, a lander would be needed, but lifetime estimates for any lander on Europa’s irradiated surface leave only 10 days using current radiation shielding technology. Both scientific panels and the GES CDF concluded that such a mission is currently not possible time.

If GSE can pull off an Enceladus mission, it would be a huge achievement, one that could make history, depending on what it finds.

“Signs of past or present life around Saturn have not been investigated before,” said Carole Mundell, ESA’s director of science. “​​​​It would guarantee ESA’s leadership in planetary science for years to come.”

The IS full report can be found on the European Space Agency website.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *