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Nasa Wants To Send A Drone To Saturn's Moon Titan

19/06/2014 10:44 BST | Updated 19/06/2014 10:59 BST

NASA really wants to explore Saturn's Moon Titan - and for good reason. For one thing, it is the only other world in our solar system which has liquid lakes on the surface. Yes, those lakes are made up of liquid ethane, or methane, which isn't ideal for swimming to put it mildly. It's also far colder than Earth, has a thick and poisonous hydrogen cyanide atmosphere and possibly even deep below-surface oceans of water and ammonia.

No, no human is ever going to stand on its surface - at least not in any form we can currently conceive (though if we could get there, the reduced gravity means we could fly by flapping a pair of wings).

But it's possible that the moon contains life (its atmosphere is full of organic compounds) and so it's a prime target for further study by other means.

In the short term that exploration will be done by the Cassini-Huygens mission. That long-running probe is currently on a flyby of the moon and will be looking for more clarity on the structure and chemical make-up of the world. Sadly it's not designed to examine the moon for signs of life, meaning that another trip (in another form) will eventually be necessary.

Which is where things get awesome. Nasa has reportedly awarded $100,000 to a team working on a design for an unmanned quadrocopter drone to explore Titan.

The 'Titan Aerial Daughtercraft' would be comprised of a mothership, possibly a balloon, which would float above Titan and contain communications equipment and a nuclear power reactor. The drone would be a separate, 22-pound craft which could travel out on missions to map the surface, and return to the mothership to refuel and download data.

saturn titan

Above: artists' impression of Titan

The idea is the work of Larry Matthies, a senior researcher at NASA's famed Jet Propulsion Lab.

The plan is described as follows:

"We propose a mission study of a small (< 10 kg) rotorcraft that can deploy from a balloon or lander to acquire close-up, high resolution imagery and mapping data of the surface, land at multiple locations to acquire microscopic imagery and samples of solid and liquid material, return the samples to the mothership for analysis, and recharge from an RTG on the mothership to enable multiple sorties."

"For a lander mission, it enables detailed studies of a large area around the lander, providing context for the micro-images and samples; with precision landing near a lake, it potentially enables sampling solid and liquid material from one lander.

For a balloon mission, it enables surface investigation and sampling with global reach without requiring a separate lander or that the balloon be brought to the surface, which has potential for major cost savings and risk reduction."

saturn titan

Above: Nasa's conception of the surface of Titan, minus the atmosphere presumably

There is a downside of course - there always is in space - and in this case it's that we currently down have the tech needed to get such a system working (to say nothing of the funding). Instead Matthies and NASA are targeting the 2040s for such a mission, which isn't massively far off but probably means the people who will pilot the craft haven't been born yet.

Another idea for exploring Titan - which was also awarded $100k - is to send a submarine to explore the ice lakes at its poles. We've written about a similar idea in the context of exploring Europa, another moon of Saturn, here.