NASA considering exploration of Saturn's Moon Enceladus for life

Plans are being made at NASA to dispatch two probes within the next 10 years to explore moons for their potential to support life. The first location, already decided on, is Jupiter's moon Europa, and being considered for the second is Enceladus, a satellite of Saturn. The two bodies are covered in ice, but it's believed under that surface are oceans of water, which astrobiologists think are the best chances at finding alien life.

The mission to Europa is said to take place in the early to mid-2020s, while the one to Enceladus, dubbed Enceladus Life Finder (ELF), would launch before the end of the year 2021. The ELF project is one of many submitted to NASA's Discovery Program, which considers and selects missions that are both low-cost and highly focused on specific locations of the solar system.

The Discovery Program received some two dozen submissions, and by next month NASA should have narrowed it down to only a handful. The team of scientists behind the ELF project believe they have a strong chance of winning, however only one finalist will be selected in September 2016.

The oceans of Enceladus can only be found beneath miles of ice, so trying to collect samples of the environment from a landed mission wouldn't be practical. Instead, ELF plans to collect from the geysers discovered in 2005 on Enceladus' south polar region. These geysers are powered by Saturn's gravitational pull, and seem to emit water ice and other carbon-containing organics.

As a member of the ELF team says, "It's free samples, we don't need to land, drill, melt or do anything like that." The plume from the icy jets were discovered, and have been flown through, by Cassini, however that spacecraft isn't built to check for alien life. This would be ELF's exact goal, meaning if it's selected by NASA, the project would have a unique purpose within the low-cost program.