NASA's Proposed Space-Faring Boat Would Cruise and Study Titan's Oceans

By Patrick Morgan | May 10, 2011 3:35 pm

What’s the News: NASA’s considering launching a boat from Earth, hurling it 746 million miles through space, and plopping it onto one of the minus-290 degrees Fahrenheit methane oceans of Titan. This mission to Saturn’s largest moon would the first of its kind to probe an alien ocean and—depending on the weather conditions—could be the first spacecraft to witness extraterrestrial rain. If the proposed mission beats out two other finalists, it could launch within the next five years. “Titan is an endpoint [in] exploring … the limits to life in our solar system,” project leader Ellen Stofan told New Scientist. “We’re going to be looking for patterns in abundances of compounds to look for evidence for more complex or interesting reactions.”

The Mission:

  • If the mission, dubbed the Titan Mare Explorer (TiME), lifts off in 2016, it should reach Titan by 2023 and then parachute onto one of its large lakes, such as Ligeia Mare or Kraken Mare. These lakes are prime destinations because, unlike most of Titan’s lakes, they span hundreds of kilometers in length, similar in size to the Great Lakes.
  • After splashing down, TiME would drift with the wind and ocean currents on Titan to complete a 96-day mission to identify the alien ocean’s complex organic molecules. Powered by the heat of decaying plutonium it brought along on the mission, the probe could gauge the temperature, humidity, and winds at the lake’s surface and also use sonar to create a lake-bottom profile. It would also take pictures of the ocean and surrounding skies.
  • Nuclear generators seem to be the best option to power the probe because batteries would only provide power for a limited time, and the moon’s atmosphere is too thick to make solar energy feasible. NASA has used nuclear energy to power spacecraft in the past, including the Cassini probe.

What’s the Context:

Not So Fast: TiME  still has to beat two other possible missions—one involving setting up seismic monitoring stations on Mars and the other involving a comet-hopping probe—before it can become anything more than a proposal.

The Future Holds: As a finalist, the TiME team has already been awarded $3 million to flesh out their idea. NASA will award the winning proposal $425 million next year.

Image: NASA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Space
  • Jim Bo

    This is great. We do really need to get into space and discover and develop new ideas and information. Where will this lead? Twenty five years from now most likely to where we know not but to not here but really it will be to here. As we spread out, each new step will decide future steps and if we continue to do this then within the next twenty five years we could be on to something of which we have no idea as of yet but that might become something like Columbus when he sailed the oceans blue. There comes a time when the tide is right and then we must take it. If we don’t, then perhaps others on earth will or maybe even, someone not here will. We must realize that those that don’t colonize sometimes simply become colonized.

  • Glen

    Don’t do it Nasa! You’re just going to unleash Thanos onto the world!

  • james

    Titan, Iapetus, Eurpoa, Ceres… I say go to them all. What’s with the discrimination?

    I’d be more interested in permanent satellites around the Moon and Venus though

  • Brian Too

    It looks a bit like the old ironclad The Monitor.

  • Franklin

    james, all of those worlds are ours except for Europa. We should attempt no landings there.

  • CNR

    Mars seismic probe? Really? Snoozefest.

    Comet hopper? We’ve been to asteroids, why do this? Another snoozefest.

    We need to explore these fun moons, Titan, Enceladus, etc…. Let’s be bold, not dull.

    Explore the places where life might be.

    There is much to learn so lets learn the good stuff now. We can fill in the boring stuff later!!

  • Brian McInnis

    Note to Patrick Morgan: ALL rain is extraterrestrial (above-ground, for those of you with shaky grasps on etymology); once it hits the ground, you just call it liquid.

  • Bill J Vincent

    Franklin, you made my day. Thank you.

  • soahs

    Has anyone thought of how humans are here on Earth? We have different racial features. And we can’t get along. After generations of life on different planets, humans will change. Different cultures, different features. Maybe interplanetary war.

  • DrivethruScientist

    I think we all know what becoming a space-faring civilization means overall. But there will be good things to come out of it too. Like all things in humanity, there’s good and bad.

  • Randy

    Hey look, an ocean! Let’s put some plutonium in it.

  • Alan

    The plutonium is to accelerate the mutation process and push evolution along – just our small contribution to evolution on Titan. :)

  • Deacon.James

    Randy: You made me laugh out loud.

  • Ben

    k, so technically, extra in Latin means ‘outside of’ or ‘beyond’, not above. Above ground would be ‘super-terrestrial’. So if you had a hollow sphere of ground 2 feet thick, rain in the middle of the sphere would be extraterrestrial (outside the physical ground, inside the sphere, but definitely not above)

    e.g. extrasensory is beyond/outside your senses, not above them

    My Latin teacher would have smacked my hand if I didn’t get these straight.

    semper ubi sub ubi !!

  • Ton

    Such a mission will get the public much more involved than a seismic mission to mars for example. It’s their money in fact.
    When I think of the Galileo probe to Jupiter I remember that I found it such a shame that the atmospheric probe didn’t have an onboard camera…Such a missed opportunity.

  • Oli

    This made my day. I can’t wait until this arrives at Titan. Now get orbiters to Uranus and Neptune (including a Triton rover) and probes (fly-bys or orbiters, I don’t mind either way) to Sedna and Eris. After that, I’d be able to die as a happy man.

  • steinmentz1

    See ‘ur’ doctor for information on digital probes of Uranus.
    He uses the probe to find out what lies below the surface.
    The probe is the size and shape of a human digit.
    Har Har Yuck. No Peking University

  • steinmentz1

    And Now on a serious note: Lakes of fuel for the taking, all we have to do is bring oxygen with us so we can burn it. Can you imagine automated fueling stations every million miles or so? Reminds me of an early Star Trek episode. A use for aerogel (strong, light and temperature resistant).

  • dave chamberlin

    If the people that launch this have a little alien face peer into the onboard camera it will insure billions more in funding. Then when we don’t find the him-she-it thing again we’ll have to conclude it is really rare. Bigfoot never did shit for science, but a well made sock puppet could really get these cheap governments to open up their wallets.

  • Keith

    Who’s to say someone didn’t drop a plutonium boat in our lake 😉 ?

  • Elizabeth Barrette

    We’ve landed probes on Mars. We’ve buzzed comets. It’s time to get a new t-shirt, folks, let’s go to Titan!

  • Muchsake

    Please please please don’t name it after where its sailing.

  • SakeBitoSan

    This is an excellent idea – but let’s hope that this time they put cameras on it that have better resolution than a 1973 Instamatic with 110 film and bacon grease smeared across the lens (a vast disappointment with Huygens.)

    They should also stick a robotic version of the Popeil’s Pocket Fisherman on the edge, drop in a daredevil and do a little trolling.

    And nobody light a match… 8^D

    Seriously, Titan is an exciting place, and it’s been a long time since NASA has done a mission that really grabbed people’s imaginations. There should be as much emphasis on relaying high-resolution video and stills of the whole excursion as there is on hard science. Imagine HD video of a hazy orange sunset reflected from a glassy, undulating methane/ ethane/ hydrocarbon lake. Given the longevity of even the solar-powered Mars rovers, with RTGs providing power there’s no reason why this craft shouldn’t be able to putter around that lake for years.

  • Carline Bottolfson

    I do agree with all of the ideas you’ve presented in your post. They are really convincing and will certainly work. Still, the posts are very short for beginners. Could you please extend them a little from next time? Thanks for the post.


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