NASA’s snake-like robot concept could search for life on Saturn’s moon

This one-of-a-kind robot is an exobiology extant life surveyor (EELS) developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 
Mrigakshi Dixit
Illustration of the Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor (EELS) concept.
Illustration of the Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor (EELS) concept.


It is time to move over the traditional wheeled or legged robots. NASA's JPL has developed a robotic concept that sounds straight out of a science-fiction and has the potential to take space exploration to the next level. 

Scientists have been working on sending a snake-like robot to explore and search for extraterrestrial life forms in the solar system. This robot is an exobiology extant life surveyor (EELS) developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). 

The snake-like robot's capabilities 

This robotic snake could penetrate through the holes, crevices, and cracks across celestial objects and planets in our solar system. Thereby exploring deep and difficult-to-reach places. 

The best part is that this self-propelled snake robot has been designed to easily traverse diverse terrains such as water, sand, rock, and ice. This ability stems from the snake robot's ability to change and adapt shape in response to the landscape. It also has rotating screws to grip and wiggle through ice structures. “EELS uses first-of-a-kind rotating propulsion units that act as tracks, gripping mechanisms, and propeller units underwater, enabling the robot to access a plume vent exit and follow it to its ocean source,” according to JPL. 

According to a report, the team recently conducted Earth analog tests of the robot inside Canada's Athabasca glacier and Mount Meager volcano. This was the first step in analyzing the robot's resilience and navigation capabilities through rugged terrain and further refining the ultimate mission's design. 

One day it could reach Saturn’s moon, Enceladus

The EELS initiative comes in the backdrop of discoveries made by the Cassini probe, which explored Saturn, its rings, and moons for nearly 13 years. The iconic mission ended in September 2017 when the spacecraft crashed into Saturn's atmosphere.

The remarkable discovery of plumes of water vapor ejected into space by Saturn's tiny icy moon Enceladus prompted the development of this EELS snake robot. This raised the possibility of a habitable liquid ocean beneath the moon's frozen crust and piqued the space community's interest in exploring this moon. 

Scientists and engineers hope to study vent systems by sending this robot through the moon's thick crevasse. 

“These crevasse envelopes have driven every aspect of the EELS architecture to make it adaptable to the challenges it may face on this journey from the surface to the ocean. The adaptability of the system opens other destinations such as Martian polar caps, and descending crevasses in ice sheets on Earth,” explained JPL. 

Furthermore, it could help future astronauts likely to establish an Artemis base camp during the upcoming missions. It can easily penetrate the moon's lava tubes or craters and determine where and how much water is trapped on the lunar surface. These remote locations are difficult to reach, but this snake robot can efficiently function and return a wealth of data to Earth. 

The JPL team is currently working on completing refinements to the EELS robot. If everything goes as planned, there's a chance we'll see a snake slithering through the icy surface of Saturn's moon.