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NASA is building snake-like robots to search for life in space

Is there life outside the world? A new snake-like robot may find out.

The Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor (EELS) is being developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for space missions to Enceladus, one of Saturn’s 83 moons known for having the whitest and most reflective icy surfaces in the Solar System. It is believed that there is a liquid ocean beneath the ice, prompting further investigation into whether life exists within it.


Illustration of the Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor (EELS) concept.


According to the Jet Propulsion Lab, EELS is a “snake-like, self-propelled robot” made of segments with a “first-of-its-kind rotating propulsion unit” that allows it to grip surfaces and move underwater. It is hoped that the robotic snake will be able to enter the ocean below through vents on Enceladus’ surface.

The nearly 16-foot and 220-pound robot is undergoing extensive testing in a variety of environments to ensure it’s ready for the job. The snake will feature “head” technology that allows EELS to capture the world in 3D and send real-time video to operators. Its body, meanwhile, will be able to carry and deploy a science payload that will allow scientists to capture surface pressure, electrical conductivity and temperature.

Last fall, it was tested on the Athabasca Glacier in Canada’s Jasper National Park.


The first EELS prototype awaits testing at the Pasadena Ice Rink.


A launch date for EELS has not yet been announced, but researchers hope to finalize the EELS concept by 2024.

“We’re early in the project, but it’s achievable in our lifetime,” EELS deputy project manager Rachel Etheredge said last year. “…This is an ambitious collaboration, and we are motivated by our shared excitement for this idea and the potential science we can gather with EELS.”

Once it’s ready to go, it will take about 12 years for a spacecraft to carry EELS moon of saturnBut researchers hope that if the robot snake finds its way to a vent in the ice crust, it will only take a few days to reach the ocean.

“The EELS system is a mobile instrument platform envisioned to explore interior terrain structures, assess habitability, and ultimately search for evidence of life,” NASA says of the development. “It’s designed to be adaptable to sea-world-inspired terrain, liquid media, enclosed labyrinth environments and traversing fluids.”

And if all goes well, the robotic snake could take world exploration of the oceans to the next level, NASA said, “allowing deep exploration into once-unreachable areas.”

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