JPL test of the snake-robot called Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor at a ski resort in the Southern California mountains in February 2023. EEL is designed to sense its environment, calculate risk, travel and gather data without human input.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is preparing to test a robotic prototype inspired by space agency plans to explore Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus.

The Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor (EELS) is designed to move across Enceladus’ icy crust and slither into vents looking for signs of habitability.

“EELS can go over a wide range of terrains from steep slopes to ice, snow, unconsolidated surfaces [like fluffy sand or soil] and also down into vents or moulins or crevasses,” said Matthew Robinson, EELS project manager. “It is a versatile robot in terms of its capabilities.”

In September, JPL engineers will travel to Canada to test an EELS prototype at the Athabasca Glacier. Last fall, since the prototype was not yet finished, EELS developers lowered the sensor head into a glacial moulin to collect data for software simulation models.

The three-years EELS technology development project was started in 2022 with internal Jet Propulsion Laboratory funding. Now that the EELS project is half over, “we’re beginning to talk to scientists and others at NASA about potential applications,” Robinson said. “We’re not limiting our sights to Enceladus.”

Meanwhile, EELS hardware, software and sensor development continues.

“EELS needs to sense the world around it with a combination of things like lidar [light detection and ranging], stereo cameras to do the mapping and also potentially force sensing, the sense of touch,” Robinson said. “If you’re moving down into a moulin, a crevasse, glacier or even a lava tube on the moon, the robot may need to push against the walls to steady itself.”

EELS also will need to make sense of sensor data and determine its path autonomously.

“There’s a possibility that you could teleoperate a robot like this on the moon, but certainly not for an outer world,” Robinson said. “Even for the moon, you would like to have a robot that that can take care of itself. If it’s exploring a cave on behalf of an astronaut, for instance, you want it to react to the environment with the knowledge that it has.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...