A Maritime Adventure on Titan

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Uncovering the secrets of a faraway land by sea is nothing new, but this classic method of discovery could see a very modern twist sometime soon. Since scientists have gathered sufficient data to be certain that the oceans on Saturn’s moon Titan are made of liquid methane, exploring them by ‘boat’ had been a popular proposal.

The most recent proposal comes from Professor John Zarnecki of the UK’s Open University. He wants to see a boat-inspired spacecraft float on the surface of Titan’s methane seas.

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A UK contribution to a NASA-based mission, the boat would be the first craft to take measurements of extraterrestrial oceanography. It would also be a fitting tribute to Britain’s 50 years in space.

Britain became the third spacefaring nation on April 26, 1962 with the satellite Ariel 1. The satellite, designed to study the properties of the upper atmosphere and cosmic rays, was built by NASA in collaboration with British scientists. Ariel 1 was the first of six missions the UK hoped would prove it was on the cutting edge of space technology during the Cold War.

In the last 50 years, the country has become a major player in space. Its frequent collaborations with NASA have spawned a £7.5 billion ($12.2 billion) a year industry. Among the more successful British-based missions are the Giotto probe that passed through the tail of Halley’s comet in 1986, taking pictures of the comet and measuring the cometary chemicals that are known to be the building blocks of life. Also, the Huygens probe that landed on Titan in 2005 used a British-made parachute system and British-made software to take surface measurements.

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Zarnecki has no shortage of daring planetary ideas. He’d like to go fishing on Jupiter’s moons Europa and Ganymede with submarines.

This also isn’t the first time he’s proposed to sail on Titan. In 2010, a group of scientists based at Johns Hopkins that included Zarnecki presented a proposal at the 41st Lunar and Planetary Sciences Conference. The mission was for the Titan Mare Explorer (TiME), a discovery class mission to make in situ measurements of the moon.

TiME would be a lake lander, floating across the surface after splashing down. It would make chemical, meteorological, and visual observations in support of broader scientific goals including taking inventory of any organic compounds and determining the sea surface meteorology.

Interest in Titan’s seas really picked up when scientists confirmed they were liquid; first liquid hydrocarbons was found on the surface, then ethane in the northern region confirmed that the lakes were in a liquid state. Now, scientists know of more than 400 lakes, mostly in the northern region, ranging in size from a few kilometers across to over 100,000 square kilometers.

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The Cassini spacecraft, currently in orbit around Saturn, has shed some light on the Titan ocean mystery, but a lot remains to be discovered like their composition, physical properties, depths, and shoreline characteristics. The lakes and oceans are likely formed by methane rain and are thought to contain traces of dissolved nitrogen compounds and other organic material in the dominant mix of methane and ethane mix.

There will be more interesting things to find, like the effects of seasons on Titan’s weather. Understanding these will teach scientists about the moon’s methane cycle that is so fascinating because its thought to be similar to the water cycle on Earth.

The TiME proposal called for a launch in January 2015 or 2016. This would have the spacecraft land in the Titan summer, enabling it to take advantage of longer days during its minimum 3-month long lifespan.

For the time being, there are no concrete plans to send a boat to navigate Titan’s oceans. If a mission does set sail, it will likely remain the most fascinating maritime voyage for a very, very long time.

Image credit: NASA