An Ambitious Frontier for Flying Drones: Saturn's Earth-Like Moon, Titan

By Sarah Zhang | February 2, 2012 10:27 am

spacing is important
Artist’s rendering of AVIATR flying on Titan.

Saturn’s moon Titan is a lot like Earth: it has rain, seasons, volcanoes, and maybe even life. Well, it’s not exactly like Earth: the rain is liquid methane, the volcanoes spew ice, and any life would be based on methane. But still, it’s an interesting and relatively Earth-like place, considering the other planets and moons in our solar system. And University of Idaho physicist Jason Barnes says he has a perfect way to explore this moon: with a flying drone.

Why use a flying machine rather than the rovers that worked so well on Mars? With 1/7 the gravity but 4 times the atmospheric density of Earth, flying through Titan is 28 times easier than on our own planet. In fact, it’s the easiest place to fly in our entire solar system. Drones on Titan can be heavier while requiring less fuel. With these facts in hand, University of Idaho physicist Jason Barnes has proposed AVIATR, otherwise known as the Aerial Vehicle for In-situ and Airborne Titan Reconnaissance.

As proposed, AVIATR would fly through Titan for a year on its radioactive power source plutonium-238, previously used on NASA’s Cassini craft, which explored Saturn and its moons. It would study the moon’s quasi-terrestrial atmosphere and geology in close-up detail, and scout landing sites for future exploration.

But even if AVIATR takes flight metaphorically speaking, it will be decades before it can actually fly in Titan’s skies. The next funding cycle is in 2020, and it’ll make 5 years to build AVIATR plus another 7.5 for it to reach Titan 880 million miles away. Perhaps someday, far in the future, children will finally get to try this:

[via New Scientist]

Image courtesy of Mike Malaska 

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology
  • Chris

    Part of me would feel a little more comfortable with a dirigible on Titan. Planes have a history of crashing. And yes I know the Hindenburg, but no oxygen so we don’t have to worry about explosions.

  • Wayne A. Bolton

    This is quite a big + for NASA, providing that “ODUMBA” will let us continue our exploration of space!!!!!!!!! Just hope that ahole keeps his nose out of NASA’S way!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • robert

    A few years back, I saw an interesting proposal that used the atmosphere of Titan as the fuel for an exploration craft. The ship would land on titan gather the atmosphere, process it into fuel and then fly to another location. It could do this over and over repeatably.

    Perhaps a combination of the drone idea, the titan processing fuel idea, and maybe a hybrid of the failed Russian tethered balloon exploration vehicles for mars would make a great exploration vehicle. Unfortunately, we won’t see anything in our Lifetime from the USA. Exploration of the solar system is pretty much canned now. The most we can hope for is a scaled down Apollo program to send 4 men to a small rock near to the Earth. And then, only if we get the true Space powers; the Russians and the Chinese to help us.

  • Anthy Hellmers

    Yes, exciting about the drone flying in that gravity structure. However, what can live in a methane atmosphere? Isnt’ methane oozing out of the Mariana Trench; giving us the colorless, giant, polymorphic fish and aquatic life that many marine biologists have discovered?

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