A robotic snake called Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor (EELS) is being developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to search for life outside planet Earth. EELS will be able to explore otherworldly terrains using spinning wheels along its body. Its primary target is Enceladus, a small icy moon of Saturn, where data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft suggests the presence of a liquid ocean beneath its icy crust.

Plumes erupting from the moon’s surface serve as direct conduits to this liquid water, making them potential pathways to a habitable liquid ocean. EELS will crawl down crevasses and swim through water to investigate such environments, using innovative rotating propulsion units that function as tracks, gripping mechanisms, and underwater propeller units. This would enable the robot to access a plume vent exit and trace it back to its ocean source.

Dr. Martin Robinson, the project manager, envisions a platform that could explore any location, even descending into lunar lava tubes. EELS’ adaptability opens up possibilities for other destinations, such as Martian polar caps and crevasses in Earth’s ice sheets. JPL is collaborating with Earth scientists to identify high-priority, high-impact terrestrial scientific investigations that can demonstrate EELS’ capabilities in a planetary analogue environment. Tests have been conducted inside Canada’s Athabasca Glacier and Mount Meager Volcano.

EELS’ versatility and machine intelligence make it suitable for various unvisited planetary destinations and locations on Earth. The discovery of potential life would be an incredible achievement, signifying that we are not alone. Dr. Hiro Ono, Principal Investigator at JPL, describes the project as a “versatile, highly intelligent, and super awesome snake robot.”

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