Encelascope Summary

Since February of 2021, ASTROBi has been studying a potential mission to Enceladus to search for signs of extant life. The spacecraft concept has a 4U science payload allocation, with the primary instrument being a compact digital holographic microscope for imaging plume material. The microscope will have volumetric resolution sufficient for detecting, tracking, and potentially characterizing any microbial life that may be present. Other instruments are being studied for the remaining SWAP allocation. Phase I of the study looked at the mission in its entirety to assess the high-level feasibility of all aspects of the mission. The aggressive arrival date assumed in Phase I led to a cost-prohibitive solution. Phase II of the study relaxed the mission timeline and focused on cost optimization. It determined that the mission is feasible at a cost between roughly $40M and $70M, with a launch date in 2026 or 2027 and an arrival at Enceladus by 2040. Phase III of the study is underway. It is focused on reducing the cost of the ground systems required to communicate with the spacecraft and optimizing the trajectory to minimize delta V. Additional detailed studies are planned to begin soon.


Encelascope transfer stage (bottom) integrated with the spacecraft (top). The current transfer stage concept utilizes two propellant tanks. The outer toroidal tank drops away once its fuel is spent.


Background We selected Enceladus as our initial target for study due to its apparent habitability, as discovered by the Cassini mission to Saturn. Enceladus has water geysers erupting from its surface, which emerge from the global ocean lying beneath its icy shell. After being ejected into space, the tiny water droplets flash freeze into ice grains and form plumes over 100 km high. Cassini flew through the plumes, and scientists back on Earth analyzed the contents of the ice grains via measurements taken by Cassini's onboard instruments. In addition to water, the ice grains were found to contain salt, silica, methane, complex organics, and nitrogen. The salt concentration appears to be in a range compatible with life, like the Earth's oceans. The silica indicates direct interaction between the subsurface ocean and the rocky mantle, likely at hydrothermal vents. This resembles processes known to take place on the Earth's ocean floor. The methane abundance is more consistent with biogenic sources than abiogenic sources. Nitrogen is a key element required by life on Earth, and the complex organics detected may have been formed by biological processes. In addition to the tantalizing clues indicating habitability and perhaps even habitation, the radiation environment at Enceladus is much less intense than the radiation environment at other potential mission destinations, such as Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter. This allows lower-cost electronics to be used for the mission because they don't need to be as resistant to the effects of radiation.


Artistic rendering of the spacecraft orbiting Enceladus during the science phase of the mission.

Other Missions and Programs

ASTROBi is currently accepting proposals and idea submissions for other missions and research programs. Our dedication to astrobiology gives us the latitude to consider a diverse array of possible missions and programs to study and execute.

Example Space Missions

  • A mission to Venus to search for biomarkers in the clouds
  • A deep-space rideshare platform for delivering multiple spacecraft to multiple life detection targets, such as Mars, Ceres, Europa, Enceladus, and the Uranus system.
  • A solar gravitational lens telescope
  • Missions to Mars, Ceres, and Uranus
  • Solar sail missions to chase down interstellar objects
  • A "mini Kepler" exoplanet-hunting CubeSat
  • Balloon-based telescope missions with life-detection goals, such as SuperBIT
  • Development of a deep-space navigation system, to enable low-cost deep-space astrobiology missions

Example Research Programs

  • Physical and theoretical models of Enceladus' geysers to determine their likely properties
  • Physical models of potential collection mechanisms for collecting ice grains while orbiting Enceladus
  • Hydrothermal vent models to better understand the phenomena taking place at the bottom of Enceladus' oceans
  • Experimental abiogenesis research
  • Theoretical and computational origin-of-life investigations
  • Development of a low-cost deep-space communications network for university or commercial astrobiology deep-space programs

If you have ideas similar to (or inspired by) the lists above or would like to submit a proposal, please contact us. We would love to discuss interesting missions and collaboration opportunities.