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NASA funds studies of aerial drone and submarine to explore Titan

Artist rendition of Titan surface
Artist rendition of Titan surface
NASA (public domain)

According to a Thursday story in Gigaom, NASA latest round of Innovative Advanced Concepts awards has given $100,000 to two concepts that would involve explorer Saturn’s moon Titan. One would involve a balloon and an aerial drone that would fly above Titan mapping its surface and collecting samples. The other would involve a submarine that would dive beneath one of the moon’s hydrocarbon seas.

Titan, along with Europa, is one of the targets for exploration that NASA is most interested in after Mars. It has lakes, oceans, and rivers just like Earth, but in this case of liquid methane and ethane rather than water. Its atmosphere is mostly nitrogen with traces of methane. It thus has one of the most complex and certainly one of the most unearthly environments in the Solar System.

There are a number of things standing in the way of NASA sending complex probes to the moons of the outer planets. The first is money. NASA’s budget has been flat for the past decade or so. A budget increase for the space agency would be necessary to send something like a Titan drone or Titan submarine.

The other impediment is the horsepower to get something there. Currently outer planets probes have to use multiple gravity assists and take many years to get out beyond the asteroid belt. Fortunately the heavy lift Space Launch System, now under the development, will be able to send substantial probes to the Outer Planets by a direct route in far less time than has previously been the case.

The final impediment is time. NASA is not even contemplating surface operations on Titan until the 2040s, according to NBC. The reason is that the moon would be experiencing its equivalent of summer then, making it easier to operate on its surface. Of course that means that the scientists who would be operating the Titan mission are currently just being born.