NASA's Proposed Titan Mare Explorer Could Have Sailed Over Seas of Liquid Methane

Titan Mare Explorer 8 photos
Photo: NASA
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It's Sea Month here at autoevolution, a month that celebrates, well, stuff that floats on or under lakes, rivers, and oceans. But no one ever specified where or what body of water. So would it be a stretch if the sea in question isn't even on Earth? Also, would it not count if the sea was made of super-chilled liquid methane instead of water?
This would be a frankly ridiculous question had it not been for one particular frosty ball of chemical tomfoolery that is Saturn's moon, Titan. That's right, at one point, a proposal from NASA rolled across the desk of the U.S. Senate with the idea of a lander probe that could float across the ultra-chilly methane lakes and oceans of Titan like a little boat, performing detailed scientific analysis all the while.

As ludicrous as it sounds, such a mission could provide an entirely different perspective as to how a planetary body acquires and maintains liquid oceans on its surface. Along with Earth, Titan is one of two heavenly bodies in our solar system, with liquid matter flowing over its surface. It's one of only eight planets or moons with liquid of any kind known to be present at all. Of these, all but the Earth is a moon of one of the outer gas giant planets.

Proposed to set off in 2016, the Titan Mare Explorer (TiME) would have launched from a United Launch Alliance Atlas V Medium-lift rocket on a seven-year transit to Jupiter's largest and perhaps most interesting satellite for a rendezvous sometime in 2023. Like the ESA Huygens probe that landed on the surface of Titan in 2005, TiME would have disconnected from an interplanetary ferry, the Casini Orbiter, in the case of Huygens, after stowing away the entirety of the cruise stage of the voyage. Possibly doing so in pairs of two or three, or with a single lander.

From there, the spacecraft's shield would impact the dense Titan atmosphere, where the friction of re-entry would decelerate the vehicle from around 20,000 mph (32,186 kph) to just above supersonic speeds in a short period. If successful, the probe would descend slowly through the remaining atmosphere once it bled off excess speed and deployed parachutes. Gathering as much data on the elemental makeup of the environment in Titan's lower atmosphere at the same time.

Titan MARE
Photo: NASA
Descending through the clouds, TiME would have set its sensors on one of two target locations. The primary target would have Ligeia Mare, a lake of liquid methane and various hydrocarbons larger than any of America's Great Lakes near Titan's North Pole. The contents of the lake are super-chilled to -290 degrees Fahrenheit (-190 C). TiME's backup target, Kraken Mare, covers a surface area slightly larger than the Caspian Sea.

So then, there certainly wasn't a small target area for this proposed space boat to land. But remember, the Huygens probe couldn't decipher whether it had landed on a solid or a liquid until it had already splat down on the surface and could compensate for both as a result. Therefore, to assume landing in the correct predetermined coordinates with all those dense clouds is sure to be a tall order.

Assuming all goes to plan once again, and TiME splashes down softly in either of two gargantuan lakes, it would begin transmitting data back to Earth. Detailing everything the probe could decipher during its descent through the element-rich atmosphere. It would also begin using a slew of surface instruments to probe the sky above and the liquids below. All in the hope of creating a detailed description of the planet's chemical makeup.

Chief among its scientific tasks will be to see if Titan's methane lake sustains a similar influence on the weather of the Saturnian moon's surface to the hydrologic effects of liquid water on Earth. Further mysteries to be solved come in trying to understand the exact chemical makeup of Titan's hydrocarbon oceans. Scientists speculate that even in the deep planetary freezer that is Titan's surface, basic organic compounds may still be able to sustain themselves among literal seas of methane, ethane, and potentially dozens of other chemicals.

Titan MARE
Photo: NASA
Because solar panels are basically useless under Titan's eternal atmospheric haze, the probe would have run on a novel Advanced Stirling radioisotope generator (ASRG). A nuclear isotope-based power generator with the ability to sustain long-term deep space missions without refueling. Safe to say, the mission would have been a marvel of engineering.

Sadly, the initial $3 million investment from Congress in 2011 was not met with further funding in 2013. Of the three space probes proposed under NASA's Discovery Program, including a comet lander probe proposal, only the InSight Martian lander was selected for funding. And so, the prospects of a NASA space boat on another world faded into the pages of history. Even so, TiME was not the last proposal to explore Titans lakes. But that's a story for another time.

Check back soon for more from Sea Month here on autoevolution.
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