NASA sees Titan's potential for studying prebiotic chemistry

June 19, 2014 by Nancy Owano, Phys.org weblog

Credit: NASA
(Phys.org) —NASA is proposing a mission study to open up the mysteries of Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. The reason is compelling enough. Titan would serve as a vast reservoir of information about one of the most earth-like worlds ever discovered. With its thick atmosphere and organic-rich chemistry, said NASA, Titan resembles a frozen version of Earth, several billion years ago, before life began pumping oxygen into our atmosphere. NASA's Larry Matthies, senior research scientist at the Pasadena, California, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, authored Titan Aerial Daughtercraft on the NASA website earlier this month. The proposed mission study involves a vehicle for Titan exploration, a rotorcraft, which would weigh less than 22 pounds. "We propose a mission study of a small (< 10 kg) (<22 pounds) 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."

In a workshop paper presented by Matthies and his team, titled Titan Aerial Daughtercraft (TAD) for Surface Studies from a Lander or Balloon, wrote, "Recent rapid progress on autonomous navigation of micro air vehicles (MAVs) for terrestrial applications opens new possibilities for a small (approximately < 10 kg), highly autonomous aerial vehicle that could deploy from a lander or balloon to perform close-up surface studies over large areas."

Interest has been keen to explore Titan but various methods of doing so had to be shelved for practical reasons. Mission concepts to date, he said, included landers, but with no mobility; balloons and airplanes, but with no surface access; and large helicopters, posing greater development costs. He said, recent advances in autonomous navigation and miniaturization of sensors, processors, and sampling change previous concepts. Study activity goals include to develop mission concepts of operations for deployment from a lander or balloon to acquire context imaging and mapping data, sample from solid surfaces and/or lakes, and return to a mothership to deposit samples and/or recharge; develop a parametric sizing model of the daughtercraft; identify components for the hardware and software system for autonomous mobility; and develop a preliminary CAD model for a science payload on the daughtercraft.

JPL would proceed with the study with support from California-based AeroVironment, utilizing the latter's expertise and developing the sizing model. AeroVironment is a manufacturer of unmanned aircraft systems and unmanned aerial vehicles.

"Saturn's giant moon Titan has become one of the most fascinating bodies in the Solar System. Titan is the richest laboratory in the solar system for studying prebiotic chemistry, which makes studying its chemistry from the surface and in the one of the most important objectives in planetary science. The diversity of surface features on Titan related to organic solids and liquids makes long-range mobility with surface access important," said Matthies. The benefits of being able to analyze Titan's surface could, he said, teach volumes about prebiotic chemical evolution on a planetary surface.

Explore further: Cassini nears 100th Titan flyby with a look back

More information: www.hou.usra.edu/meetings/ippw2014/pdf/8083.pdf
www.nasa.gov/content/titan-aer … rcraft/#.U6MeQPkZMhb

Related Stories

Cassini nears 100th Titan flyby with a look back

March 6, 2014

(Phys.org) —Ten years ago, we knew Titan as a fuzzy orange ball about the size of Mercury. We knew it had a nitrogen atmosphere—the only known world with a thick nitrogen atmosphere besides Earth. But what might lie beneath ...

Cassini captures familiar forms on Titan's dunes

April 8, 2014

(Phys.org) —The moons of our Solar System are brimming with unusual landscapes. However, sometimes they look a little more familiar, as in this new radar image from the Cassini orbiter. The image shows dark streaks carved ...

NASA team investigates complex chemistry at Titan

April 3, 2013

(Phys.org) —A laboratory experiment at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., simulating the atmosphere of Saturn's moon Titan suggests complex organic chemistry that could eventually lead to the building blocks ...

Titan's methane: Going, going, soon to be gone?

April 16, 2013

(Phys.org) —By tracking a part of the surface of Saturn's moon Titan over several years, NASA's Cassini mission has found a remarkable longevity to the hydrocarbon lakes on the moon's surface.

Recommended for you

Archaeologists discover Incan tomb in Peru

February 16, 2019

Peruvian archaeologists discovered an Incan tomb in the north of the country where an elite member of the pre-Columbian empire was buried, one of the investigators announced Friday.

What rising seas mean for local economies

February 15, 2019

Impacts from climate change are not always easy to see. But for many local businesses in coastal communities across the United States, the evidence is right outside their doors—or in their parking lots.

Where is the universe hiding its missing mass?

February 15, 2019

Astronomers have spent decades looking for something that sounds like it would be hard to miss: about a third of the "normal" matter in the Universe. New results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory may have helped them ...

The friendly extortioner takes it all

February 15, 2019

Cooperating with other people makes many things easier. However, competition is also a characteristic aspect of our society. In their struggle for contracts and positions, people have to be more successful than their competitors ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

alfie_null
not rated yet Jun 20, 2014
That's 10 kg mass.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.