Missions & Hardware

A Light Sail Astrobiology Precursor Mission To Enceladus And Europa

By Keith Cowing
Status Report
March 3, 2024
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A Light Sail Astrobiology Precursor Mission To Enceladus And Europa
Heliocentric trajectory associated with the light sail, in conjunction with the relevant heliocentric parameters shown for the setup described in Section 2. — astro-ph.EP

Icy moons with subsurface oceans of liquid water rank among the most promising astrobiological targets in our Solar System.

In this work, we assess the feasibility of deploying laser sail technology in precursor life-detection missions. We investigate such laser sail missions to Enceladus and Europa, as these two moons emit plumes that seem accessible to in situ sampling. Our study suggests that GigaWatt laser technology could accelerate a 100 kg probe to a speed of ∼30kms−1, thereupon reaching Europa on timescales of 1-4 years and Enceladus with flight times of 3-6 years.

Although the ideal latitudes for the laser array vary, placing the requisite infrastructure close to either the Antarctic or Arctic Circles might represent technically viable options for an Enceladus mission. Crucially, we determine that the minimum encounter velocities with these moons (about 6kms−1) may be near-optimal for detecting biomolecular building blocks (e.g., amino acids) in the plumes by means of a mass spectrometer akin to the Surface Dust Analyzer onboard the Europa Clipper mission.

In summary, icy moons in the Solar System are potentially well-suited for exploration via the laser sail architecture approach, especially where low encounter speeds and/or multiple missions are desirable.

Manasvi Lingam, Adam Hibberd, Andreas M. Hein

Comments: accepted for publication in Acta Astronautica; 22 pages; 15 figures; 3 tables
Subjects: Earth and Planetary Astrophysics (astro-ph.EP); Instrumentation and Methods for Astrophysics (astro-ph.IM); Space Physics (physics.space-ph)
Cite as: arXiv:2402.18691 [astro-ph.EP] (or arXiv:2402.18691v1 [astro-ph.EP] for this version)
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Submission history
From: Manasvi Lingam
[v1] Wed, 28 Feb 2024 20:09:56 UTC (1,040 KB)

Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA Space Station Payload manager/space biologist, Away Teams, Journalist, Lapsed climber, Synaesthete, Na’Vi-Jedi-Freman-Buddhist-mix, ASL, Devon Island and Everest Base Camp veteran, (he/him) 🖖🏻