By Matt Williams
Last week – from Monday, February 27th to Wednesday, March 1st – NASA hosted the “Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop” at their headquarters in Washington, DC. In the course of the many presentations, speeches and panel discussions, NASA’s shared its many plans for the future of space exploration with the international community.
Among the more ambitious of these was a proposal to explore Titan using an aerial explorer and a lander. Building upon the success of the ESA’s Cassini-Huygen mission, this plan would involve a balloon that would explore Titan’s surface from low altitude, along with a Mars Pathfinder-style mission that would explore the surface.
Ultimately, the goal a mission to Titan would be to explore the rich organic chemical environment the moon has, which presents a unique opportunity for planetary researchers. For some time, scientists have understood that Titan’s surface and atmosphere have an abundance of organic compounds and all the prebiotic chemistry necessary for life to function.
The presentation, which was titled “Aerial Mobility : The Key to Exploring Titan’s Rich Chemical Diversity” was chaired by Ralph Lorenz from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, and co-chaired by Elizabeth Turtle (also from John Hopkins APL) and Jason Barnes from the Dept. of Physics at the University of Idaho. As Lorenz explained during the presentation, Titan presents some exciting opportunities for a next-generation mission:
“Titan offers complex carbon-rich chemistry in abundance on an ice-dominated ocean world. However, the most astrobiologically interesting sites need mobile in situ exploration, much as rovers are performing at Mars. Titan’s thick atmosphere and low-gravity environment facilitates regional mobility to home in on the specific locations where liquid water and abundant organics have interacted.”
For this reason, the exploration of Titan has been a scientific goal for decades. The only question is how best to go about exploring Titan’s unique environment. During previous Decadal Surveys – such as the Campaign Strategy Working Group (CSWG) on Prebiotic Chemistry in the Outer Solar System, of which Lorenz was a contributor – has suggested that a mobile aerial vehicle (such as an airship or a balloon) would well-suited to the task.
However, such vehicles would be unable to study Titan’s methane lakes, which are one of the most exciting draws of the moon as far as research into prebiotic chemistry goes. What’s more, an aerial vehicle would not be able to conduct in-situ chemical analysis of the surface, much like what the Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity) have been doing on Mars – and with immense results!
So while the balloon would gather high-resolution geographical data of the moon, the lander could conduct seismological surveys that would characterize the thickness of the ice above Titan’s internal water ocean. However, a lander mission would be limited in terms of range, and the surface of Titan presents problems for mobility. This would make multiple landers, or a relocatable lander, the most desired option.
This mission concept would also take advantage of several technological advances that have been made in recent years. As Lorenz explained:
“Heavier-than-air mobility at Titan is in fact highly efficient, moreover, improvements in autonomous aircraft in the two decades since the CSWG make such exploration a realistic prospect. Multiple in-situ landers delivered by an aerial vehicle like an airplane or a lander with aerial mobility to access multiple sites, would provide the most desirable scientific capability, highly relevant to the themes of origins, workings, and life.”
Lorenz, Turtle and Barnes will also be presenting these findings at the upcoming 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference – which will be taking place from March 20th to 24th in The Woodlands, Texas. There they will be joined by additional members of the Johns Hopkins APL and the University of Idaho, as well as panelists from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Pennsylvania State University, and Honeybee Robotics.
However, addressing some additional challenges not raised at the 2050 Vision Workshop, they will be presenting a slight twist on their idea. Instead of a balloon and multiple landers, they will present a mission concept involving a “Dragonfly” qaudcopter. This four-rotor vehicle would be able to take advantage of Titan’s thick atmosphere and low gravity to obtain samples and determine the surface composition in multiple geological settings.
This concept also incorporates a lot of recent advances in technology, which include modern control electronics and advances in commerical unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designs. On top of that, a quadcopter would do away with chemically-powered retrorockets and could power-up between flights, giving it a potentially much longer lifespan.
These and other concepts for exploring Saturn’s moon Titan are sure to gain traction in the coming years. Given the many mysteries locked away on this world – with includes abundant water ice, prebiotic chemistry, a methane cycle, and a subsurface ocean that is likely to be a prebiotic environment – it is certainly a popular target for scientific research.