Humans' search for inhabitable planets beyond Earth may get a new contender after NASA announced plans to embark on a 'low-cost' expedition to Neptune's largest moon, Triton.
The journey, revealed at a recent Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas, would send a small spacecraft named Trident to explore the moon in search of conditions conducive for human life.
'The time is now to do this mission,' Louise Prockter, director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston and the principal investigator of the proposed mission said in a New York Times report.
During a prior mission by NASA's Voyager 2 in 1989, a flyby caught glimpses of Neptune's moon which have intrigued scientists ever since.
'The time is now to do it at a low cost,' Prockter said. 'And we will investigate whether it is a habitable world, which is of huge importance.'
Triton has piqued the interest of both NASA and astronomers around the world for exhibiting what are commonly understood to be the precursors for life.
Among the key factors separating Triton from other planetary objects in the Milky Way Galaxy according to scientists, is what has been hypothesized to be vast underground oceans running beneath the moon's icy mantle.
Despite Triton's extremely cold temperature, the water on the moon is thought to be kept liquid by the presence of ammonia which would lower the freezing point.
Additionally, according to recent research by NASA, the surface of Triton also contains organic compounds called 'Tholins' which are believed to be chemical precursors to life.
NASA's trip to Triton would mark the first time since 1989 when the agency's Voyager 2 spacecraft grabbed glimpses during a flyby.
According to a New York Times report, the mission to Triton will be formally presented to NASA later this month and will compete for funding among other projects in the agency's Discovery Program.
Underground oceans are thought to swell beneath Triton's icey exterior.
While Triton has been the most recent planetary object to attract interest from explorers with their sights set on our solar system and beyond, it is still far from being the front runner for human colonization.
In recent years, Mars in particular has garnered increasingly serious interest from NASA and even privately owned aerospace companies seeking a viable alternative to Earth.
Arguably the bustiest proposal has come from CEO of the electric car company Tesla, Elon Musk, whose private aerospace comapny, SpaceX, continues to fund prototypes of spacecraft and more.
SpaceX says its plans to launch its first craft to Mars in 2022.
WHERE ARE THE VOYAGERS NOW?
Voyager 1 is currently 13 billion miles away from Earth, travelling northward through space.
The probe has recently sent back data to Nasa that cosmic rays are as much as four times more abundant in interstellar space than in the vicinity of Earth.
This suggests that the heliosphere, the region of space that contains our solar system's planets, may act as a radiation shield.
Where they are: This graphic shows where our solar system's final frontier, the heliosheath, fits in relation to our galaxy. The interstellar wind collides with the heliosheath and forms a structure called the bow shock (red and orange areas, forcing the heliosheath into a long, teardrop shaped structure. Voyager 1 has reached the final frontier of our solar system, having travelled through a turbulent place where electrically charged particles from the Sun crash into thin gas from interstellar space.
Meanwhile, Voyager 2 is now 11 billion miles from Earth, travelling south towards the interstellar region.
The contrasting locations of the two spacecraft allow scientists to compare two regions of space where the heliosphere interacts with the interstellar medium.
Once Voyager 2 crosses into the interstellar medium, scientists will be able to sample the medium from two different locations at the same time.