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EELS ilustration, Enceladus
EELS ilustration, EnceladusCourtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA is sending robot snakes to sssearch for aliens on Saturn’s moon

The space agency’s EELS are set to slither into Enceladus’s underground sea, but could also uncover secrets in our own oceans and glaciers

Last month, scientists blasted a £1.4 billion probe named Juice into space, with the goal of finding life on the icy moons of Jupiter. Barring some antenna issues, it’s on track to begin its search in the early 2030s, alongside NASA’s Europa Clipper, but Jupiter isn’t the only place that we’re looking for life in our solar system.

In a recent statement from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the space agency unveiled a new robot that is destined for Enceladus, one of Saturn’s 83 moons. Whereas most spacefaring robots use wheels to trundle over the surfaces of distant planets and moons, however, this robot is built different – it slithers like a snake.

On closer inspection, the “snake-like, self-propelled robot” – appropriately named EELS, or the Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor – is made up of many identical segments, measuring in at around five metres and 100 kilograms. Kitted out with “first-of-a-kind rotating propulsion units”, it should be able to traverse both the white, icy surface of Enceladus as well as underwater. Tech in its “head”, meanwhile, will capture its surroundings in 3D and beam real-time video back to its operators.

In theory, the robot will allow scientists to investigate what they suspect is a large liquid ocean beneath the surface of Enceladus. Evidence of the ocean was discovered by the Cassini spacecraft in 2005, when it spotted icy water particles and gas erupting from the moon’s surface at around 800 miles per hour. Since liquid water is a necessary ingredient for life as we understand it, the discovery has long prompted speculation that Enceladus is a good candidate for finding alien lifeforms.

Before travelling to Enceladus, though (the journey itself could take more than a decade), the EELS system has to be rigorously tested. So far, that’s involved walking it around an ice rink, and – in September – lowering a segment into a shaft of the Athabasca Glacier in Canada’s Jasper National Park.

According to researchers, the concept should be finalised by autumn 2024, and deploying the cybernetic serpents on Saturn’s moon should be “achievable in our lifetime”. It remains to be seen how the robots could be adapted to open the doors to new discoveries closer to home. One potential use is burrowing into the polar ice caps on Mars, with Earth’s ice sheets and oceans also earmarked for exploration.