NASA has added two potentially habitable moons of Saturn to the list of possible destinations for its next billion-dollar planetary science mission.
In a Jan. 6 “community announcement” email to scientists, NASA said that “Ocean Worlds,” which it defined as Saturn’s moons Titan and Enceladus, were now included in a set of six classes of missions that the agency would accept proposals for in the next New Frontiers competition in 2017.
“The Ocean Worlds theme for this announcement is tentatively focused on the search for signs of extant life and/or characterizing the potential habitability of Titan or Enceladus,” the announcement stated. The statement did not explain why Ocean Worlds theme was added to New Frontiers.
Scientists have found evidence in recent years that both moons could be habitable. Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, has a dense atmosphere and lakes of liquid hydrocarbon on its surface. Smaller Enceladus likely has an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy surface.
The decision comes after the House, in the report accompanying its version of a fiscal year 2016 appropriations bill, directed NASA to establish an “Ocean Worlds Exploration Program,” specifically citing discoveries made on Titan and Enceladus.