What About a Mission to Titan?

What About a Mission to Titan?


As you probably know, NASA recently announced plans to send a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. If all goes well, the Europa Clipper will blast off for the world in the 2020s, and orbit the icy moon to discover all its secrets.

And that’s great and all, I like Europa just fine. But you know where I’d really like us to go next? Titan.

Titan, as you probably know, is the largest moon orbiting Saturn. In fact, it’s the second largest moon in the Solar System after Jupiter’s Ganymede. It measures 5,190 kilometers across, almost half the diameter of the Earth. This place is big.

It orbits Saturn every 15 hours and 22 days, and like many large moons in the Solar System, it’s tidally locked to its planet, always showing Saturn one side.

Titan image taken by Cassini on Oct. 7, 2013 (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Before NASA’s Voyager spacecraft arrived in 1980, astronomers actually thought that Titan was the biggest moon in the Solar System. But Voyager showed that it actually has a thick atmosphere, that extends well into space, making the true size of the moon hard to judge.

This atmosphere is one of the most interesting features of Titan. In fact, it’s the only moon in the entire Solar System with a significant atmosphere. If you could stand on the surface, you would experience about 1.45 times the atmospheric pressure on Earth. In other words, you wouldn’t need a pressure suit to wander around the surface of Titan.

You would, however, need a coat. Titan is incredibly cold, with an average temperature of almost -180 Celsius. For you Fahrenheit people that’s -292 F. The coldest ground temperature ever measured on Earth is almost -90 C, so way way colder.

You would also need some way to breathe, since Titan’s atmosphere is almost entirely nitrogen, with trace amounts of methane and hydrogen. It’s thick and poisonous, but not murderous, like Venus.

Titan has only been explored a couple of times, and we’ve actually only landed on it once.

The first spacecraft to visit Titan was NASA’s Pioneer 11, which flew past Saturn and its moons in 1979. This flyby was followed by NASA’s Voyager 1 in 1980 and then Voyager 2 in 1981. Voyager 1 was given a special trajectory that would take it as close as possible to Titan to give us a close up view of the world.

Saturn’s moon Titan lies under a thick blanket of orange haze in this Voyager 1 picture. Credit: NASA

Voyager was able to measure its atmosphere, and helped scientists calculate Titan’s size and mass. It also got a hint of darker regions which would later turn out to be oceans of liquid hydrocarbons.

The true age of Titan exploration began with NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which arrived at Saturn on July 4, 2004. Cassini made its first flyby of Titan on October 26, 2004, getting to within 1,200 kilometers or 750 miles of the planet. But this was just the beginning. By the end of its mission later this year, Cassini will have made 125 flybys of Titan, mapping the world in incredible detail.

Cassini saw that Titan actually has a very complicated hydrological system, but instead of liquid water, it has weather of hydrocarbons. The skies are dotted with methane clouds, which can rain and fill oceans of nearly pure methane.

And we know all about this because of Cassini’s Huygen’s lander, which detached from the spacecraft and landed on the surface of Titan on January 14, 2005. Here’s an amazing timelapse that shows the view from Huygens as it passed down through the atmosphere of Titan, and landed on its surface.

Huygens landed on a flat plain, surrounded by “rocks”, frozen globules of water ice. This was lucky, but the probe was also built to float if it happened to land on liquid instead.

It lasted for about 90 minutes on the surface of Titan, sending data back to Earth before it went dark, wrapping up the most distant landing humanity has ever accomplished in the Solar System.

Although we know quite a bit about Titan, there are still so many mysteries. The first big one is the cycle of liquid. Across Titan there are these vast oceans of liquid methane, which evaporate to create methane clouds. These rain, creating mists and even rivers.

This false-color mosaic of Saturn’s largest moon Titan, obtained by Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer, shows what scientists interpret as an icy volcano. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Is it volcanic? There are regions of Titan that definitely look like there have been volcanoes recently. Maybe they’re cryovolcanoes, where the tidal interactions with Saturn cause water to well up from beneath crust and erupt onto the surface.

Is there life there? This is perhaps the most intriguing possibility of all. The methane rich system has the precursor chemicals that life on Earth probably used to get started billions of years ago. There’s probably heated regions beneath the surface and liquid water which could sustain life. But there could also be life as we don’t understand it, using methane and ammonia as a solvent instead of water.

To get a better answer to these questions, we’ve got to return to Titan. We’ve got to land, rove around, sail the oceans and swim beneath their waves.

Now you know all about this history of the exploration of Titan. It’s time to look at serious ideas for returning to Titan and exploring it again, especially its oceans.

Planetary scientists have been excited about the exploration of Titan for a while now, and a few preliminary proposals have been suggested, to study the moon from the air, the land, and the seas.

The spacecraft, balloon, and lander of the Titan Saturn System Mission. Credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

First up, there’s the Titan Saturn System Mission, a mission proposed in 2009, for a late 2020s arrival at Titan. This spacecraft would consist of a lander and a balloon that would float about in the atmosphere, and study the world from above. Over the course of its mission, the balloon would circumnavigate Titan once from an altitude of 10km, taking incredibly high resolution images. The lander would touch down in one of Titan’s oceans and float about on top of the liquid methane, sampling its chemicals.

As we stand right now, this mission is in the preliminary stages, and may never launch.

The Aerial Vehicle for In-situ and Airborne Titan Reconnaissance (AVIATR) concept for an aerial explorer for Titan. Credit: Mike Malaska

In 2012, Dr. Jason Barnes and his team from the University of Idaho proposed sending a robotic aircraft to Titan, which would fly around in the atmosphere photographing its surface. Titan is actually one of the best places in the entire Solar System to fly an airplane. It has a thicker atmosphere and lower gravity, and unlike the balloon concept, an airplane is free to go wherever it needs powered by a radioactive thermal generator.

Although the mission would only cost about $750 million or so, NASA hasn’t pushed it beyond the conceptual stage yet.

On the left is TALISE (Titan Lake In-situ Sampling Propelled Explorer), the ESA proposal. This would have it’s own propulsion, in the form of paddlewheels. Credit: bisbos.com

An even cooler plan would put a boat down in one of Titan’s oceans. In 2012, a team of Spanish engineers presented their idea for how a Titan boat would work, using propellers to put-put about across Titan’s seas. They called their mission the Titan Lake In-Situ Sampling Propelled Explorer, or TALISE.

Propellers are fine, but it turns out you could even have a sailboat on Titan. The methane seas have much less density and viscosity than water, which means that you’d only experience about 26% the friction of Earth. Cassini measured windspeeds of about 3.3 m/s across Titan, which half the average windspeed of Earth. But this would be plenty of wind to power a sail when you consider Titan’s thicker atmosphere.

And here’s my favorite idea. A submarine. This 6-meter vessel would float on Titan’s Kraken Mare sea, studying the chemistry of the oceans, measuring currents and tides, and mapping out the sea floor.

It would be capable of diving down beneath the waves for periods, studying interesting regions up close, and then returning to the surface to communicate its findings back to Earth. This mission is in the conceptual stage right now, but it was recently chosen by NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts Group for further study. If all goes well, the submarine would travel to Titan by 2038 when there’s a good planetary alignment.

Okay? Are you convinced? Let’s go back to Titan. Let’s explore it from the air, crawl around on the surface and dive beneath its waves. It’s one of the most interesting places in the entire Solar System, and we’ve only scratched the surface.

If I’ve done my job right, you’re as excited about a mission to Titan as I am. Let’s go back, let’s sail and submarine around that place. Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Exploring Titan with Aerial Platforms

Last week, from Monday Feb. 27th to Wednesday March 1st, NASA hosted the “Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop” at their headquarters in Washington, DC. During the course of the many presentations, speeches and addresses that made up the workshop, NASA and its affiliates shared their many proposals for the future of Solar System exploration.

A very popular theme during the workshop was the exploration of Titan. In addition to being the only other body in the Solar System with a nitrogen-rich atmosphere and visible liquid on its surface, it also has an environment rich in organic chemistry. For this reason, a team led by Michael Pauken (from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory) held a presentation detailing the many ways it can be explored using aerial vehicles.

The presentation, which was titled “Science at a Variety of Scientific Regions at Titan using Aerial Platforms“, was  also chaired by members of the aerospace industry – such as AeroVironment and Global Aerospace from Monrovia, California, and Thin Red Line Aerospace from Chilliwack, BC. Together, they reviewed the various aerial platform concepts that have been proposed for Titan since 2004.

Artist depiction of the ESA’s Huygens lander setting down on Titan, which took place on January 14th. Credit: ESA

While the concept of exploring Titan with aerial drones and balloons dates back to the 1970s and 80s, 2004 was especially important since it was at this time that the Huygens lander conducted the first exploration of the moon’s surface. Since that time, many interesting and feasible proposals for aerial platforms have been made. As Dr. Pauken told Universe Today via email:

The Cassini-Huygens mission revealed a lot about Titan we didn’t know before and that has also raised a lot more questions. It helped us determine that imaging the surface is possible below 40-km altitude so it’s exciting to know we could take aerial photos of Titan and send them back home.”

These concepts can be divided into two categories, which are Lighter-Than-Air (LTA) craft and Heavier-Than-Air (HTA) craft. And as Pauken explained, these are both well-suited when it comes to exploring a moon like Titan, which has an atmosphere that is actually denser than Earth’s – 146.7 kPa at the surface compared to 101 kPa at sea level on Earth – but only 0.14 times the gravity (similar to the Moon).

“The density of Titan’s atmosphere is higher than Earth’s so it is excellent for flying lighter-than-air vehicles like a balloon,” he said. “Titan’s low gravity is a benefit for heavier-than-air vehicles like helicopters or airplanes since they will ‘weigh’ less than they would on Earth.

Titan’s atmosphere makes Saturn’s largest moon look like a fuzzy orange ball in this natural-color view from the Cassini spacecraft. Cassini captured this image in 2012. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

“The Lighter-than-air LTA concepts are buoyant and don’t need any energy to stay aloft, so more energy can be directed towards science instruments and communications. The Heavier-than-air concepts have to consume power to stay in the air which takes away from science and telecom. But HTA can be directed to targets more quickly and accurately the LTA vehicles which mostly drift with the winds.”

TSSM Montgolfiere Balloon:

Plans for using a Montgolfiere balloon to explore Titan go back to 2008, when NASA and the ESA jointly developed the Titan Saturn System Mission (TSSM) concept. A Flagship Mission concept, the TSSM would consist of three elements including a NASA orbiter and two ESA-designed in-situ elements – a lander to explore Titan’s lakes and a Montgolfiere balloon to explore its atmosphere.

The orbiter would rely on a Radioisotopic Power System (RPS) and Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) to reach the Saturn system. And on its way to Titan, it would be responsible for examining Saturn’s magnetosphere, flying through the plumes of Enceladus to analyze it for biological markers, and taking images of Enceladus’ “Tiger Stripes” in the southern polar region.

Artist’s concept of a Mongolfiere balloon and a deployable lander at Titan. Credit: NASA

Once the orbiter had achieved orbital insertion with Saturn, it would release the Montgolfiere during its first Titan flyby. Attitude control for the balloon would be provided by heating the ambient gas with RPS waste heat. The prime mission would last a total of about 4 years, comprised of a two-year Saturn tour, a 2-month Titan aero-sampling phase, and a 20-month Titan orbiting phase.

Of the benefits to this concept, the most obvious is the fact that a Montgolfiere vehicle powered by RPS could operate within Titan’s atmosphere for many years and would be able to change altitude with only minimal energy use. At the time, the TSSM concept was in competition with mission proposals for the moons of Europa and Ganymede.

In February of 2009, both the TSSM and the the Europa Jupiter System Mission (EJSM) concept were chosen to move forward with development, but the EJSM was given first priority. This mission was renamed the Europa Clipper, and is slated for launch in 2020 (and arriving at Europa by 2026).

Titan Helium Balloon:

Subsequent research on Montgolfiere balloons revealed that years of service and minimal energy expenditure could also be achieved in a much more compact balloon design. By combining an enveloped-design with helium, such a platform could operate in the skies of Titan for four times as long as balloons here on Earth, thanks to a much slower rate of diffusion.

Artist’s concept of the Mechanical Compression Altitude Control (MCAC) balloon, which is comprised of a number of segments that are compressed by shortening a tether that runs down the axis of the balloon. Credit: Thin Red Line Aerospace.

Altitude control would also be possible with very modest amounts of energy, which could be provided either through pump or mechanical compression. Thus, with an RPS providing power, the platform could be expected to last longer that comparable balloon designs. This envelope-helium balloon could also be paired with a glider to create a lighter-than-air vehicle capable of lateral motion as well.

Examples of the this include the Titan Winged Aerobot (TWA, shown below), which was investigated as part of NASA’s Phase One 2016 Small-Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. Developed by the Global Aerospace Corporation, in collaboration with Northrop Grumman, the TWA is a hybrid entry vehicle, balloon, and maneuverable glider with 3-D directional control that could satisfy many science objectives.

Like the Mongtolfiere concept, it would rely on minimal power provided by a single RPS. Its unique buoyancy system would also allow it to descend and ascend without the need for propulsion systems or control surfaces. One drawback is the fact that it cannot land on the moon’s surface to conduct research and then take off again. However, the design does allow for low-altitude flight, which would allow for the delivery of probes to the surface.

Other concepts that have been developed in recent years include heavier-than-air aircraft, which center around the development of fixed-wing vehicles and rotorcraft.

Concept for a Titan Winged Aerobot, a hybrid balloon glider that does not require significant power either to stay aloft or to achieve lateral motion. Credit: Global Aerospace Corp/Northrup Grumman

Fixed Wing Vehicles:

Concepts for fixed-wing aircraft have also been proposed in the past for a mission to Titan. A notable example of this is the Aerial Vehicle for In-situ and Airborne Titan Reconnaissance (AVIATR), an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that was proposed by Jason Barnes and Lawrence Lemke in 2011 (of the University of Idaho and Central Michigan University, respectively).

Relying on an RPS that would use the waste heat of decaying Plutonium 238 to power a small rear-mounted turbine, this low-power craft would take advantage of Titan’s dense atmosphere and low gravity to conduct sustained flight. A novel “climb-then-glide” strategy, where the engine would shut down during glide periods, would also allow for power to be stored for optimal use during telecommunication sessions.

This addresses a major drawback of fixed-wing vehicles, which is the need to subdivide power between the needs of maintaining flight and conducting scientific research. However, the AVIATR is limited in one respect, in that it cannot descend to the surface to conduct science experiments or collect samples.

Rotorcraft:

Last, but not least, is the concept for a rotorcraft. In this case, the aerial platform would be a quadcopter, which would be well-suited to Titan’s atmosphere, would allow for easy ascent and descent, and for studies to be conducted on the surface. It would also take advantage of developments made in commercial UAVs and drones in recent years.

Artist’s concept of the Titan Aerial Daughtercraft (TAD) flying above one of Titan’s methane lake. Credit: NASA

This mission concept would consist of two components. On the one hand, there’s the rotorcraft – known as a Titan Aerial Daughtercraft (TAD) – which would rely on a rechargeable battery system to power itself while conducting short-duration flights (about an hour at a time). The second component is the “Mothercraft”, which would take the form of a lander or balloon, which the TAD would return to between flights to recharge from an onboard RPS.

Currently, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is developing a similar concept, known as the Mars Helicopter “Scout”, for use on Mars – which is expected to be launched aboard the Mars 2020 mission. In this case, the design calls for two coaxial counter-rotating rotors, which would provide the best thrust-to-weight ratio in Mars’ thin atmosphere.

Another rotorcraft concept is being pursued by Elizabeth Turtle and colleagues from John Hopkins APL and the University of Idaho (including James Barnes). With support from NASA and members of Goddard Space Flight Center, Pennsylvania State University, and Honeybee Robotics, they have proposed a concept known as the “Dragonfly“.

Their aerial vehicle would rely on four-rotors to take advantage of Titan’s thick atmosphere and low gravity. Its design would also allow it to easily obtain samples and determine the composition of the surface in multiple geological settings.  These findings will be presented at the upcoming 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference – which will be taking place from March 20th to 24th in The Woodlands, Texas.

Artist’s concept of the Titan Aerial Daughter quadcopter and its “Mothercraft” balloon. Credit: NASA/STMD

While the exploration of Titan is likely to take a back seat to the exploration of Europa in the coming decades, it is anticipated that a mission will be mounted before the mid-point of this century. Not only are the scientific goals very much the same in both cases – a chance to explore a unique environment and search for life beyond Earth – but the benefits will be comparable as well.

With every potentially life-bearing body we explore, we stand to learn more about how life began in our Solar System. And even if we do not find any life in the process, we stand to learn a great deal about the history and formation of the Solar System. On top of that, we will be one step closer to understanding humanity’s place in the Universe.

Further Reading: USRA

AVIATR: An Airplane Mission for Titan

[/caption]

It has been said that the atmosphere on Titan is so dense that a person could strap a pair of wings on their back and soar through its skies.

It’s a pretty fascinating thought. And Titan – Saturn’s largest moon – is a pretty fascinating place. After all, it’s the only other body in our solar system (besides Earth, of course) that has that type of atmosphere and evidence of liquid on its surface.

“As far as its scientific interest, Titan is the most interesting target in the Solar System,” Dr. Jason W. Barnes of the University of Idaho told Universe Today.

That’s why Barnes and a team of 30 scientists and engineers created an unmanned mission concept to explore Titan called AVIATR (Aerial Vehicle for In-situ and Airborne Titan Reconnaissance). The plan, which primarily consists of a 120 kg plane soaring through the natural satellite’s atmosphere, was published online late last month.

The goal of the plane concept – which according to Barnes can serve as a standalone mission or as part of a larger Titan-focused exploration program – is to study the moon’s geography (its mountains, dunes, lakes and seas), as well as its atmosphere (the wind, haze, clouds and rain. Did you know that Titan is the only other place is our solar system where it rains?)

AVIATR is composed of three vehicles: one for space travel, one for entry and descent into Titan, and a plane to fly through the atmosphere. AVIATR, estimated to cost $715 million, would not prevent other missions from occurring on Titan, Barnes said. Instead, it would supplement the science being done by other projects.

“The science that AVIATR could do complements the science that can be accomplished from both orbiting and landed platforms,” the article stated.

Unfortunately, it seems like the plane concept won’t be happening anytime soon.

That’s because Titan didn’t make the National Research Council’s “Decadal Survey” – a prioritization of future planetary missions. (Read more about the survey in this Universe Today post.)

“Titan was deferred to another decade,” Barnes said.

But, he hopes to continue to build support for AVIATR so that it can get onto the next decadal survey in 2020. “We certainly had a lot of interest from people. We are breaking the paradigm that a balloon was the right way to go to Titan,” Barnes said.

So, why send an unmanned plane to study Titan’s atmosphere?

“Titan is the best place to fly an airplane in the whole solar system. We can go when and where we want,” Barnes said, adding that when compared to Earth, there’s four times more air and seven times less gravity on Titan. “A balloon is stuck in the wind.”

According to the article:

“A balloon entrained in primarily zonal winds near the equator would have no mechanism by which to travel to the polar regions to observe lakes and shoreline processes. Even if it were possible to get there, it is not clear that it would be desirable to send a balloon to the poles where Titan’s most violent meteorological activity takes place. AVIATR is both able to fly to the poles and is sufficiently robust to survive there.”

Mission poster for AVIATR. Credit: Mike Malaska

There’s also this issue: A shortage of plutonium-238.

“The radioactive decay of plutonium-238 provides the heat that powers RTGs, which can power spacecraft where there is insufficient sunlight for solar panels to operate. NASA is presently investing in a new type of RTG, called the ASRG,” the article stated. “A traditional hot-air balloon will not work on Titan with an ASRG owing to its lower heat production. In contrast, the AVIATR mission is specifically enabled by the use of ASRGs. The power density (in Watts per kilogram) and longevity of the ASRG allow an electrically-powered aircraft to fly on Titan.”

A plane could also find potential landing spots for future exploration. And, “since we are flying, we fly west the whole time so we can stay on the day side of Titan,” Barnes said.

That daylight would also help AVIATR collect photographic data during its travels and, according to Barnes, when it’s time to downlink that information, the plane would conserve energy by gliding through the air.

“And in doing so, we can also sample of bunch of altitude ranges,” Barnes said. “We are sampling the whole time.”

The plan seems interesting enough, but it’ll be quite a while before any data from the prospective mission would be coming back to Earth. If the plan is accepted (the earliest being 2020), the project would still have to be built, then once completed it would take 7 1/2 years to reach Titan. Once there, the mission would take about a nominal Earth year to study.

“I now realize that it’s a career-long project,” Barnes said to Universe Today. “The plan at this point is to keep this in the forefront of people’s minds and take whatever new ideas that people suggest and try to improve its prospect for selection.

To view the complete proposal, published in Experimental Astronomy, go here.