Friday, September 28, 2012

Aliens To Invade Titan, Plans Disclosed, Ships Revealed

Humanity has landed a rover on Mars. Now, say scientists, it's time to land a boat on Titan. This outlandish scenario could become reality, according to engineers who presented their proposals at the European Planetary Science Congress on 27 September.  Of course, when humans go to another world, we are the aliens, you will please forgive the poetic license taken for the title of this story.

The Cassini-Huygens mission, which studied Titan extensively in the 2000s, confirmed that lakes, seas and rivers of liquid hydrocarbons (similar to household gas) exist, covering much of the satellite’s northern hemisphere. Although it eventually landed on solid ground, the Hugyens lander was designed to be able to float for a short period.

Titan, Saturn's largest moon, is one of the most Earth-like bodies in the Solar System. With a thick atmosphere, a diameter between that of Earth and the planet Mercury, and a network of seas, lakes and rivers, it is in many respects more like a planet than a moon like the Earth’s. 

Images from the Cassini mission show river networks draining into lakes in Titan's north polar region.

Image: NASA/JPL/USGS

The new plans, called the Titan Lake In-situ Sampling Propelled Explorer, proposes a boat-probe, propelled by wheels, paddles or screws. The probe would land in the middle of Ligeia Mare (the biggest lake, near Titan’s north pole), then set sail for the coast, taking scientific measurements along the way. The mission would last around six months to a year.

Screw concept for TALISE probe: This rendering of the proposed TALISE probe shows one possible means of propulsion: screws on either side of the probe.
Credit: SENER

Paddle concept for TALISE probe: This rendering of the proposed TALISE probe shows one possible means of propulsion: paddle wheels on either side of the probe.
Credit: SENER

"The main innovation in TALISE is the propulsion system," says Igone Urdampilleta (SENER), a member of the TALISE team. "This allows the probe to move, under control, from the landing site in the lake, to the closest shore. The displacement capability would achieve the obtaining of liquid and solid samples from several scientific interesting locations on Titan's surface such as the landing place, along the route towards the shore and finally at the shoreline."

Wheeled concept for TALISE probe: This rendering of the proposed TALISE probe shows one possible means of propulsion: wheels on either side of the probe.

Credit: SENER

Titan's environment is too cold for life as we know it, but its environment, rich in the building blocks of life, is of great interest to astrobiologists. The satellite's atmosphere is made up largely of nitrogen (like Earth’s), is rich in organic compounds and hydrogen cyanide, which may have played a role in the emergence of life on Earth.

The TALISE concept is being developed as a partnership between SENER and the Centro de Astrobiología in Madrid, Spain. This mission concept is the result of a 'Phase 0' study. In the following phases the feasibility study and a preliminary mission architecture would be realised to consolidate a possible technical proposal for future space science mission call.

For many years, Titan's thick, methane- and nitrogen-rich atmosphere kept astronomers from seeing what lies beneath. Saturn's largest moon appeared through telescopes as a hazy orange orb, in contrast to other heavily cratered moons in the solar system

Cassini's visual and infrared mapping spectrometer has imaged a huge cloud system covering the north pole of Titan.  This composite image shows the cloud, imaged at a distance of 90,000 kilometers (54,000 miles) during a Dec. 29, 2006, flyby designed to observe the limb of the moon. Cassini's visual and infrared mapping spectrometer scanned the limb, revealing this spectacular cloud system. It covers the north pole down to a latitude of 62 degrees north and at all observed longitudes.
two views of Titan's giant north pole cloud
Credit:  NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/LPGNantes

SENER is a private engineering and technology group founded in 1956, which seeks to offer its clients the most advanced technological solutions and which enjoys international recognition, thanks to its independence and its commitment to innovation and quality. SENER has a workforce of more than 5,200 professionals and a turnover of €1.16 billion (2011 figures). SENER engages in the specific activities of Engineering and Construction, and also has industrial holdings in companies involved in Energy and Environment, as well as in Aeronautics.

In 2004, the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft — a probe that flies by Titan as it orbits Saturn — penetrated Titan's haze, providing scientists with their first detailed images of the surface. Radar images revealed an icy terrain carved out over millions of years by rivers of liquid methane, similar to how rivers of water have etched into Earth's rocky continents.

While images of Titan have revealed its present landscape, very little is known about its geologic past. Now researchers at MIT and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville have analyzed images of Titan's river networks and determined that in some regions, rivers have created surprisingly little erosion. The researchers say there are two possible explanations: either erosion on Titan is extremely slow, or some other recent phenomena may have wiped out older riverbeds and landforms.
Oded Aharonson, a professor of planetary science at the California Institute of Technology, says analyzing geologic processes on Titan may help scientists understand how rivers form. “Besides Earth, Titan is the only world where we see active river networks forming as a result of an active hydrologic cycle,” Aharonson says. “The finding suggests the process of river erosion on Titan is currently responding to resurfacing or resetting of the surface.”

"It's a weirdly Earth-like place, even with this exotic combination of materials and temperatures," Taylor Perron, the Cecil and Ida Green Assistant Professor of Geology at MIT ays. "And so you can still say something definitive about the erosion. It's the same physics.

SENER is a global leader in the Space industry, with over 208 devices launched to date in 48 satellites and space vehicles: for the space agencies of the US (NASA), Europe (ESA), Japan (JAXA) and Russia (Roscosmos), all without a single recorded failure. Its latest noteworthy projects include the Solar Orbiter joint mission between NASA and the ESA, a scientific satellite for studying the sun's upper latitudes and poles, where SENER provided the entire antenna subsystem, along with other components; and NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, where SENER supplied the pointing mechanism for the antenna, which enables bi-directional communication between the rover Curiosity and the mission's tracking stations on Earth. Curiosity successfully reached Mars' surface on August 6, and since then its broadband communication with Earth has been functioning normally thanks to the precision of SENER's mechanism.

Contacts and sources:
Igone Urdampilleta
Europlanet

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