01:59 GMT25 September 2020
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    The possibility of extraterrestrial worlds’ existence never ceases to haunt human minds: NASA is preparing to explore two Solar System moons, which scientists say may be inhabited with alien life.

    While the exploration of Jupiter’s satellite Europa is already scheduled for the early 2020s, the fate of a flyby around Saturn’s moon Enceladus remains more uncertain, according to Space.com, though researchers hope a probe will be launched by 2021.

    What’s key is that, according to experts, both Europa and Enceladus have the best chances among all Solar System bodies for hosting life, as they both possess underground oceans.

    NASA’s Enceladus Life Finder (ELF) project seeks to gather samples from the purportedly habitable oceans without even landing on the surface of the moon. There are geysers throwing a mix of water ice, salts, and carbon-containing organics from underneath the icy shell of Enceladus, and Saturn’s gravitational field forms plumes that aren’t dissolved in space.

    "It's free samples," Cornell University’s Jonathan Lunine, who is also ELF’s concept principal investigator, said of the plumes. "We don't need to land, drill, melt or do anything like that."

    Under the terms of the project, ELF will be launched with a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. After 9.5 years of space journey, it will approach Saturn, and fly through Enceladus’s plumes between eight and ten times, collecting samples, during a three year period.

    According to Lunine, two mass spectrometers carried by ELF will study the samples, one analyzing gaseous plume molecules and the other solid grains, while mission scientists will use testing results to check for the possibility of life.

    "Positive results for all three would strongly argue for life within Enceladus," the ELF team wrote in a paper presented at the 46th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, held in March in The Woodlands, Texas.

    The estimated cost of the project is quite low — only $450 million, excluding post-launch operations.

    ELF still has to beat out around a dozen other mission drafts to be realized within NASA’s Discovery Program.

    "We think we have the highest chance of success of getting an indicator of [alien] life for really any mission at this point," Lunine told Space.com.

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    Tags:
    satellite, Saturn, Europa, Enceladus, space exploration, extraterrestial life, NASA, United States
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