(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 mission 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 rotorcraft 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 atmosphere 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.
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