Snakes may be slithering and exploring the moons of Saturn after the efforts of the team at NASA. The company announced plans to send robots shaped like snakes on an adventure to Saturn.
EELS (Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor) are currently being tested by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to assess whether it would qualify to explore Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Enceladus is the sixth-largest moon of Saturn, named after a giant in Greek mythology. The moon is covered by fresh ice, making it one of the most reflective bodies of the Solar System.
“It has the capability to go to locations where other robots can’t go. Though some robots are better at one particular type of terrain or other, the idea for EELS is the ability to do it all,” said JPL’s Matthew Robinson, EELS project manager, in a statement.
“When you’re going places where you don’t know what you’ll find, you want to send a versatile, risk-aware robot that’s prepared for uncertainty — and can make decisions on its own,” Robinson added.
NASA hopes EELS will be an ideal choice to navigate the area of Enceladus due to its ability to get around all kinds of terrain, including deep crevasses and underground oceans.
NASA engineers have designed the EELS to be able to sense its own environment using cameras and lidar, a form of laser-based sonar that builds up 3D maps of an environment. The robots move around after assessing the risks from the data about the moon.
The robots weigh 220 pounds and have a length of 13 feet. The machine can move around without any human commands which is desirable since human signals will take time to travel back and forth.
“Imagine a car driving autonomously, but there are no stop signs, no traffic signals, not even any roads. The robot has to figure out what the road is and try to follow it,” the project lead, Rohan Thakker, said in the statement. “Then it needs to go down a 100-foot drop and not fall.”
The first prototype of the EELS was built in 2019 and scientists transported the robot to Athabasca Glacier in the Canadian Rockies to simulate the environment on Enceladus’ surface.
“Our focus so far has been on autonomous capability and mobility, but eventually we’ll look at what science instruments we can integrate with EELS,” Robinson said. “Scientists tell us where they want to go, what they’re most excited about, and we’ll provide a robot that will get them there. How? Like a startup, we just have to build it.”
The team is still in the early stages of sending this robot into space but progress is being made. The team aims to get the EELS ready to fly into space by the end of 2024. After that, there will still be another 12 years of space travel before it reaches Saturn.