Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Enceladus: A Rising Star

The latest results from Cassini's flybys of Enceladus increase the likelihood that this small moon has a liquid oceans and the conditions for life.  (See BBC story among many.)  That in turn increases the priority of Enceladus as a target for exploration in the coming decade.  At the moment, the Decadal Survey is studying possible architectures for missions ranging from returning samples from the plume, to multiple flybys, an orbiter, or a lander.  Unfortunately, missions to the Saturn system tend to be expensive, and even a minimalistic multiple flyby mission will probably exceed $1B.  More ambitious missions such as landers or sample returns may well cost much more and would suffer from technical immaturity.  (Which is what kept the Saturn Titan System Mission from being selected as the Flagship mission for the coming decade over the Jupiter Europa System Mission.)

While we wait to see what priority the Decadal Survey gives to Enceladus here are links you may want to follow:

An Enceladus New Frontiers Proposal (solar powered multiple flyby)

Mission Architecture Options for Enceladus Exploration (new astrodynamics techniques make low speed flybys, orbiters, and landers possible)

Enceladus Sample Return (a la Stardust, with samples gathered during flybys through the plumes.  I really like this idea, but think the Decadal Survey may find that cryogenic cooling is required to preserve the ices and any hydrocarbons, which would raise the technical difficulty)


  1. I am in strong favor of such a mission. On my short list of top priority missions, it would rank #2 slightly behind an Europa mission (which to me still offers the greatest chance for finding some form of primitive life below the icy surface).

    My only concern is if an Enceladus mission is given priority over an Europa mission, thereby delaying the latter. I hope funding would be avaialble to support both mission simultaneously.

    Based on the mission proposals I have seen, many of the science objectives appear to be common. If both missions shared common components and architecture, a great deal of time and money could be saved.

  2. The Europa orbiter design could be reused, although it's radiation hardened electronics would prove to be an expensive option. Figure a duplicate could probably be built and flown for ~60% the cost of the first spacecraft, say ~$2B.

    The Decadal Survey is scoping Enceladus missions and probably looking into cheaper options. If any prove viable, they will probably do full cost analyses.