Wednesday, May 11, 2016

THEO Concept Mission: Testing the Habitability of Enceladus' Ocean

THEO Concept Mission: Testing the Habitability of Enceladus's Ocean


MacKenzie et al


Saturn's moon Enceladus offers a unique opportunity in the search for life and habitable environments beyond Earth, a key theme of the National Research Council's 2013-2022 Decadal Survey. A plume of water vapor and ice spews from Enceladus's south polar region. Cassini data suggest that this plume, sourced by a liquid reservoir beneath the moon's icy crust, contain organics, salts, and water-rock interaction derivatives. Thus, the ingredients for life as we know it-- liquid water, chemistry, and energy sources-- are available in Enceladus's subsurface ocean. We have only to sample the plumes to investigate this hidden ocean environment. We present a New Frontiers class, solar-powered Enceladus orbiter that would take advantage of this opportunity, Testing the Habitability of Enceladus's Ocean (THEO). Developed by the 2015 Jet Propulsion Laboratory Planetary Science Summer School student participants under the guidance of TeamX, this mission concept includes remote sensing and in situ analyses with a mass spectrometer, a sub-mm radiometer-spectrometer, a camera, and two magnetometers. These instruments were selected to address four key questions for ascertaining the habitability of Enceladus's ocean within the context of the moon's geological activity: (1) How are the plumes and ocean connected? (2) Are the abiotic conditions of the ocean suitable for habitability? (3) How stable is the ocean environment? (4) Is there evidence of biological processes? By taking advantage of the opportunity Enceladus's plumes offer, THEO represents a viable, solar-powered option for exploring a potentially habitable ocean world of the outer solar system.

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