Mars, the moon, and even distant moons of Saturn and Jupiter—these celestial bodies have one thing in common: they are home to a different kind of inhabitant, robots. Humans have only sent their scientific devices to these extraterrestrial worlds, but now NASA is planning to send a groundbreaking slithering snake-bot into the depths of space.

The team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has been diligently developing a snake-inspired robot named Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor, or EELS, since 2019. EELS is designed not only to navigate various terrains on Earth but also to explore the intriguing landscapes of other planets within our solar system.

Measuring 13 feet in length and weighing approximately 220 pounds, EELS consists of ten identical screw-like segments that can independently rotate, articulate, and perceive their surroundings. Wrapped in aluminum or 3D-printed threads, this innovative robot possesses the ability to propel itself using unconventional motions and configurations. Equipped with advanced sensors, EELS can analyze risks and adapt to its environment in real-time, eliminating the need for human intervention. But where does NASA plan to send this remarkable creation?

EELS is undergoing rigorous testing in diverse Earthly settings, including sand, snow, ice, and underwater environments. However, its true destination lies beyond our planet’s boundaries. Enceladus, an icy moon of Saturn, holds significant appeal for EELS exploration. Geysers discovered on Enceladus in 2005 and subsequently sampled contain organic material, hinting at the existence of a planet-wide ocean beneath the moon’s icy surface. Enceladus is not the sole contender, though.

Scientists believe that oceans may lie beneath the surfaces of three of Jupiter’s moons—Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. Recent studies also suggest the presence of subsurface oceans on four of Uranus’ moons—Ariel, Umbriel, Titania, and Oberon. Additionally, Saturn’s moon Titan possesses liquid oceans on its surface, making it a remarkable candidate for extraterrestrial life exploration. Neptune’s moon Triton boasts geysers, while plumes have been theorized on the dwarf planet Pluto. EELS is also well-suited to investigate underground lava tubes found on the moon, Mars, and potentially even Mercury.

With numerous intriguing destinations on its radar, perfectly aligned with EELS’ exceptional style of exploration, the modular robot could potentially be mass-produced for future missions. Such scalability would theoretically reduce development costs, representing not just a small slither for a robot, but a significant leap for the field of robotics.

By Impact Lab