Strategic Map for Enceladus Plume Biosignature Sample Return

Friday, 19 December 2014
Brent Sherwood, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA, United States
The discovery of jets emitting salty water from the interior of Saturn’s small moon Enceladus is one of the most astounding results of the Cassini mission to date. The measured presence of organic species in the resulting plume, the finding that the jet activity is valved by tidal stretching at apocrone, the modeled lifetime of E-ring particles, and gravitational inference of a long-lived, deep, large water reservoir all indicate that the textbook conditions for habitability are met at Enceladus today: liquid water, biologically available elements, source of energy, and longevity of conducive conditions. Enceladus may be the best place in our solar system to search for direct evidence of biomarkers, and the plume provides a way to sample, analyze, and even return them to Earth for detailed analysis.

For example, it is straightforward to define a Stardust-like, fly-through, plume ice-particle, dust, and gas collection mission. Concept engineering and evaluation indicate that the associated technical, programmatic, regulatory, and cost issues are quite unlike the Stardust precedent however, not least because of such a mission’s Category-V, Restricted Earth Return, classification.

The poster presents a strategic framework for systematic integration of the enabling issues: cultivation of science advocacy, resolution of diverse stakeholder concerns, development of verifiable and affordable technical solutions, validation of cost estimation methods, alignment with other candidate astrobiology missions, complementarity of international agency goals, and finally the identification of appropriate research and flight-mission opportunities. A strategic approach is essential if we are to know the astrobiological state of Enceladus in our lifetime, and two international teams are already dedicated to implementing key steps on this roadmap.