NASA will do that Enceladus! Last month, the National Academy of Sciences finally published its Decadal Survey for Planetary Science and Astrobiology – widely regarded as a “to do” list for NASA – and the star of the show was NASA’s recommendation to develop Enceladus Orbilander mission to explore Saturn’s sixth largest moon.
Enceladus has a warm salty sea beneath its icy surface. It also has plumes or geysers that spew that liquid into space. This means unmatched access to an alien ocean, which is why some planetary scientists and astrobiologists rank it as the most exciting object in the solar system. However, Orbilander will not be joining Enceladus anytime soon.
Here are seven things you need to know about Orbilander’s astonishing plans to both orbit and land on Enceladus:
1. Orbilander will land and take photos
Orbilander will orbit Enceladus, mainly to test its plumes – like ice particles in space – twice a day for 200 days. Then it will land. Enceladus has about one hundredth of the gravity on Earth, so landing should be relatively easy compared to Mars. It will then stay on the surface for at least a couple of years, sometimes changing position, to take (probably much larger) samples of the plume material that has fallen back.
It will also have cameras on board to send back photos from orbit and the surface, as well as a seismometer to capture any “ice earthquakes”. At the end of the mission, Orbilander will remain on Encelade’s surface.
2. It will not come until 2050 – and it’s perfect
The Orbilander concept proposes a launch in October 2038 (with a backup in November 2039) to arrive in 2050. It’s a long time, with Orbilander not planned to be launched by NASA until 2029 at the earliest. Of course, 2050 – at least – is very long time to wait for the first scientific results of a NASA mission.
It is to explore the outer solar system for you.
Still, there is a good scientific argument to wait until then anyway. Starting the development of Orbilander in the late 2020s means that you will arrive at Enceladus in the early 2050s when its south pole enters the southern summer. This means that more of the moon will be lit up as the mission continues.
It can launch on a spaceship SpaceX
To reach Saturn in seven years – which would be followed by a four-year “moon ride” to “pump down” its speed so that it can enter orbit around its target – Enceladus Orbilander requires a super-heavy launch vehicle. That probably means NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), though it could also mean the SpaceX Starship vehicle. Both are still under development.
However, it could start on a heavy lift vehicle – like the SpaceX Falcon Heavy – if it also included a solar-electric propulsion stage and / or a Jupiter gravity aid. Venus and the Earth’s gravitational help would also be possible. But either we’re talking about nine or ten years just to reach Saturn.
4. It will search for life
Enceladus is an iceberg world with active plumes of gas and particles coming from its underground oceans. So Orbilander will be able to study materials in their plumes as if they were directly testing their underground sea for signs of habitability.
The main scientific goals for Orbilander are:
- to search for evidence of life.
- to obtain geochemical and geophysical contexts for life detection experiments.
5. Enceladus is small
The main problem with Orbilander’s mission concept is that Enceladus is so very small. It is only 500 kilometers in diameter – the same distance from London and Edinburgh – so getting physically out of Saturn’s orbit and into orbit around Enceladus will not be easy.
Take a four-year tour of Saturn’s moons to slow it down and get it on the right track to catch Enceladus.
It will cost $ 4.9 billion … or $ 900 million
If NASA just can not afford to start developing the $ 4.9 billion Orbilander mission, it has a plan B from the committee. The list also includes the Enceladus Multiple Flyby (EMF) concept, a more affordable “New Frontiers” mission that costs less than $ 900 million. EMP is a flyby mission that would make a spacecraft collect plume samples while traveling at 4 km / s – not ideally – and it would collect 100 times less material than Orbilander. EMF would also lack the ability to detect life and not be able to provide any geological or geophysical context.
If Orbilander starts in 2030, on target, then EMF is history, states the Decadal Survey report. “When we generate a Decadal Survey, we do not know what the budget will be over the next 10 years, and there are many features on the funding,” said Amy Simon, senior researcher in planetary atmospheric research at the Solar System Exploration Division at the Solar System Exploration Division. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and a member of the committee that prepared the report. “Although we would like two new flagships to be launched in the decade, it may or may not be affordable, so allowing Enceladus to stay in the New Frontiers provides extra flexibility.”
7. Enceladus Orbilander is not guaranteed
Although they beat rival concept missions – specifically the Europa Lander, Mercury Lander, Neptune-Triton Odyssey flagship and Venus flagship – Orbilander is only the second highest priority new flagship mission after Uranus Orbiter and Lander.
Given that NASA is already engaged in the Mars Sample Return mission to retrieve the rocks now being collected by its Perseverance rover – and that Uranus Orbiter and Lander were ranked third in the 2010 Decadal Survey and were never built – the chances of Orbilander becoming a reality are still in balance.
“Orbilander provides an outstanding opportunity to explore the astrobiological conditions of the marine world and will revolutionize our understanding of these worlds,” the Decadal Survey reports.
It must be worth the wait.
Wish you big eyes and clear skies.
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