THEO concept mission: Testing the Habitability of Enceladus's Ocean

Shannon M. MacKenzie, Tess E. Caswell, Charity M. Phillips-Lander, E. Natasha Stavros, Jason D. Hofgartner, Vivian Z. Sun, Kathryn E. Powell, Casey J. Steuer, Joseph G. O'Rourke, Jasmeet K. Dhaliwal, Cecilia W.S. Leung, Elaine M. Petro, J. Judson Wynne, Samson Phan, Matteo Crismani, Akshata Krishnamurthy, Kristen K. John, Kevin DeBruin, Charles J. Budney, Karl L. Mitchell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Saturn's moon Enceladus offers a unique opportunity in the search for life and habitable environments beyond Earth, a key theme of the National Research Council's 2013–2022 Decadal Survey. A plume of water vapor and ice spews from Enceladus's south polar region. Cassini data suggest that this plume, sourced by a liquid reservoir beneath the moon's icy crust, contain organics, salts, and water–rock interaction derivatives. Thus, the ingredients for life as we know it – liquid water, chemistry, and energy sources – are available in Enceladus's subsurface ocean. We have only to sample the plumes to investigate this hidden ocean environment. We present a New Frontiers class, solar-powered Enceladus orbiter that would take advantage of this opportunity, Testing the Habitability of Enceladus's Ocean (THEO). Developed by the 2015 Jet Propulsion Laboratory Planetary Science Summer School student participants under the guidance of TeamX, this mission concept includes remote sensing and in situ analyses with a mass spectrometer, a sub-mm radiometer–spectrometer, a camera, and two magnetometers. These instruments were selected to address four key questions for ascertaining the habitability of Enceladus's ocean within the context of the moon's geological activity: (1) how are the plumes and ocean connected? (2) are the abiotic conditions of the ocean suitable for habitability? (3) how stable is the ocean environment? (4) is there evidence of biological processes? By taking advantage of the opportunity Enceladus's plumes offer, THEO represents a viable, solar-powered option for exploring a potentially habitable ocean world of the outer solar system.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1117-1137
Number of pages21
JournalAdvances in Space Research
Issue number6
StatePublished - Sep 15 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • Enceladus
  • Mission concept studies

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aerospace Engineering
  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Geophysics
  • Atmospheric Science
  • Space and Planetary Science
  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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