Living on Enceladus? Europa has an astrobiological mission to Saturn’s ocean moon in its sights

By | March 31, 2024

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

The European Space Agency (ESA) is thinking significantly ahead with its ‘Voyager 2050’ programme, which sets out the scientific goals and missions for the middle of this century. The overarching theme of “moons of the solar system” was chosen in 2021, and now an expert report has recommended that Enceladus should be the primary target.

Enceladus is a 309 mile wide (498 kilometers) icy moon of Saturn. In 2006, the Cassini mission found that giant plumes of water vapor spout from deep cracks in the surface, nicknamed “tiger stripes,” located near Enceladus’ south pole. The plumes are the result of those from Saturn gravity stretching and squeezing Enceladus’ intestines like putty, injecting energy into them the moon‘s interior to keep water liquid in a global ocean and periodically squirt some of that water out through the tiger stripes, like squeezing water from a bottle.

Related: Saturn’s Moons: Facts About the Ringed Planet’s Weird and Wonderful Satellites

ESA convened a 12-member panel of planetary scientists from across Europe, chaired by Zita Martins, an astrobiologist at the Instituto Superior Técnico in Portugal, to assess the science to be gained from venturing into Enceladus, its fellow Saturnian satellite. Titan or the Jupiter ocean moon Europe. Meanwhile, engineers at ESA’s Concurrent Design Facility (CDF) investigated what kind of mission would be most realistic given current and near-future technologies.

“The search for habitable conditions and for characteristics of life in the solar system is challenging from a scientific and technological point of view, but very exciting,” Martins said in a study. press statement.

From both a scientific and technological point of view, Enceladus came out on top, followed by Titan and then Europa.

Enceladus has all the ingredients needed for a potentially habitable environment. Liquid water – check. Organic molecules – check. A source of chemical energy to fuel life – bill.

The report suggests that a mission to Enceladus (or Titan) will consist of both an orbiter and a lander. They would be launched separately Ariane 6 rockets and then make an appointment Soil orbit before heading towards Saturn. Once there, they would fly several times past Saturn’s other moons that could host oceans, such as Dione, Mimas And Rheabefore approaching their target, Enceladus or Titan.

rows of canyons and peaks stretch vertically across the surface of an arid landscape.  Plumes of white mist spew from the depths of the rightmost canyon.  At the top left center a crescent planet can be seen in the dark starry sky, while at the bottom left a small bright star shines.

rows of canyons and peaks stretch vertically across the surface of an arid landscape. Plumes of white mist spew from the depths of the rightmost canyon. At the top left center a crescent planet can be seen in the dark starry sky, while at the bottom left a small bright star shines.

If Enceladus were chosen, the lander would land in the south polar region near the tiger stripes and collect samples of the ocean snowed back onto the surface by the plumes. If ESA wanted to part with the lander for budgetary reasons, the orbiter could also fly through the plumes and sample material that way. This has been done before with the Cassini spacecraft. Although Cassini did not have the instruments to detect life, it did organic molecules found from the ocean in the plumes.

A lander as part of a Titan mission would focus on landing in an empty bottom that seasonally fills with liquid hydrocarbons such as ethane and methane, and sampling the sediments there. However, getting into low orbit around Titan, where an orbiter could also sample the moon’s upper atmosphere, is challenging due to the significant delta-v (change in velocity) required, which would require a more complex spacecraft have larger fuel reserves, which in turn become larger. the crowd at launch.

It’s also worth pointing that out NASA is already developing a planned mission to Titan, namely a quadcopter called Dragonfly launch in 2028 to explore the sky and surface of the great moon. While Titan certainly has the organic chemistry that could assemble the building blocks of life, the moon’s astrobiological potential has recently been called into question in research suggesting that not enough organic matter from the surface would reach the subsurface ocean.

Related: Titan: Facts about Saturn’s largest moon

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Europa Clipper due to launch in October 2024, it will maximize all the science that can be done from a short flight over Europe. To significantly advance the science that can be done in Europe would require a lander, but estimates put the lifespan of any lander on Europe’s irradiated surface at just 10 days using current radiation shielding technology. Both ESA’s science and CDF panels concluded that such a mission is not feasible at this time time.

If ESA can carry out an Enceladus mission, it would be a huge achievement that could potentially make history, depending on what it finds.

“A survey of signs of past or present life around Saturn has never been conducted before,” said Carole Mundell, ESA science director. “It would ensure ESA’s leadership in planetary science for decades to come.”

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

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