Titan-Bound Flying Boat Will Feed on Alien Liquids Through Its Wings

TitanAir concept and the Titan moon seen in infrared 7 photos
Photo: NASA/Quinn Morley/edited by autoevolution
TitanAir conceptTitan moonTitan moonTitan moonTitan moonTitan moon
The Moon and Mars… Every single one of you with the slightest interest in space exploration knows these two places are the primary targets of our efforts to expand to alien worlds in the coming years. But there’s a third such place out there, and it’s getting ever-increasing attention thanks to some of its most unexpected traits.
We call this third place of particular interest to us Titan. It’s the largest moon of one of the solar system’s behemoths, Saturn, and the only moon to have an atmosphere in our corner of the Universe (for perspective, the system-wide list of moons presently includes 150 pieces of rock).

Having an atmosphere immediately makes a celestial body a prime target for us humans, but if you add to that the fact Titan also has liquids, flowing as rivers or sitting idle as lakes and seas, the level of interest we’re likely to show in it goes through the roof in an instant.

Titan’s atmosphere won’t allow creatures as we know them to exist there. Sure, it’s mostly comprised of nitrogen, just like the one here on Earth, but it comes with a surface pressure 50 percent higher than on our home world, and that might prove tricky for Earth-bound beings.

The liquids that litter the moon’s surface, with the largest seas measuring hundreds of miles wide and equally as deep, cannot sustain life as we know it either, as they’re made of methane and ethane.

Titan moon
Photo: NASA
Yet all of the above makes Titan a very alluring place from a scientific point of view, and several missions are already planned to be sent there in the not-so-distant future. The most high-profile of them is NASA’s Dragonfly. Using the lessons learned with the Ingenuity helicopter presently performing all sorts of tricks over on Mars, the Dragonfly is scheduled for launch in 2026 (and for arrival on Titan in 2034) with a single goal in mind: search for signs of life on this mysterious world.

Dragonfly is as real as it gets, but there are many more other ideas still in development stages, and we never know how these are going to go. One of them would be the TitanAir, one of the 14 different projects backed in January 2023 by NASA through its Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.

TitanAir is the brainchild of a Planet Enterprises researcher named Quinn Morley. Planet Enterprises describes itself as “an aerospace technology incubator,” so coming up with wacky ideas is in the job description.

The main photo of this piece, an official rendering of the TitanAir, shows an amphibious aircraft-type machine, with large wings spreading to either side and massive stabilizers. There is no place for humans in this thing, as no humans would dare venture all the way to Titan with the current level of technological development of our spaceships, so it has no windows.

TitanAir concept
Photo: NASA/Quinn Morley
So what is it, if not a sort of airliner for moving about on Titan? The answer is simple: the aircraft was envisioned as a platform to collect liquids from Titan’s atmosphere and from its lakes and seas. But Morley’s idea does not have as much to do with the airplane itself as with the liquid collecting methods and technologies.

If you zoom in on the photo and focus on the airplane’s wing, you’ll see a very strange leading edge. It has been designed like that, porous or permeable, on purpose. That’s because it is that leading edge that’ll help the TitanAir ingest condensed methane and organics floating in Titan’s atmosphere.

When it’s all done doing its thing in the air, the plane could turn into a boat, touching the surface of a lake or sea to collect liquids by means of inlet ports located beneath the waterline.

Once in the wings, the ingested liquids could be collected in a single place in one of three ways (exact method is still to be determined): through a membrane, through channels etched into the skin of the machine, or through a process that is not unlike what cacti are doing when collecting the liquids they need.

Titan moon
Photo: NASA
A Phase I NIAC grant means the idea is still in its early stages. Morley is at a stage where he’s just beginning to touch the surface of what’s possible. A microgravity experiment is in the works to prove, on a small scale, that the idea of sucking in liquids like this is feasible, but we do not yet know when the concept will be tested.

The airplane you see in the main photo of this piece doesn’t exist anywhere outside a digital rendering, so we have no technical specs to share. We do know it should be capable of flying a few hours per day, although how and where it will rest its bones when not in operation is not clear. It’s also not clear what will happen with the collected samples: will they be analyzed on board or sent to perhaps an orbital station or all the way back to Earth?

Scientists will probably start thinking of that as soon as the planned experiment proves its merits, so it's likely this is not the last time we've heard about TitanAir.
If you liked the article, please follow us:  Google News icon Google News Youtube Instagram
About the author: Daniel Patrascu
Daniel Patrascu profile photo

Daniel loves writing (or so he claims), and he uses this skill to offer readers a "behind the scenes" look at the automotive industry. He also enjoys talking about space exploration and robots, because in his view the only way forward for humanity is away from this planet, in metal bodies.
Full profile


Would you like AUTOEVOLUTION to send you notifications?

You will only receive our top stories