Scientists: Let's Make the Next Space Exploration Probe a Boat


A bold new proposal to explore a distant, Earth-like moon

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Titan's river networks draining into lakes on the moon's north polar region (NASA/JPL/USGS)

Saturn has more than 60 natural satellites. The largest of them is Titan, which hosts not only a thick atmosphere, but also seas and lakes and rivers comprised of methane (liquid hydrogen). Because of that, Titan -- though technically a moon -- is one of the most Earth-like bodies in the solar system.

Because of that, as well, Titan is an enticing target for human exploration. Scientists may debate whether Saturn's moon could actually support life; the atmosphere and surface liquids (not to mention a possible subsurface ocean) suggest a chance of it, while the frigid temperatures (-289 degrees Fahrenheit!) do not. Either way, though, the potential for such Titanic hospitality makes exploration of Saturn's moon an ongoing goal. NASA's Cassini mission has been sending intriguing images of the planet-like body, and, in January 2005, the European Space Agency's Huygens probe touched down on Titan's surface -- the first landing ever accomplished in our outer solar system. The vehicle transmitted about 90 minutes' worth of information -- including pretty spectacular images of drainage channels -- before going quiet.

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The atmosphere of Titan, as seen from NASA's Cassini spacecraft (NASA)

Now a group of scientists, reports, is proposing a new mission to explore Titan -- this time by way of a floating probe that would land on one of the moon's many lakes. The rather awesomely named Titan Lake In-situ Sampling Propelled Explorer (TALISE) would be a modified boat that would be equipped to explore, over a relatively lengthy period of time, the methane fluidity of Titan's surface. TALISE, its design unveiled last week at the European Planetary Science Congress in Madrid, would be propelled by a combination of wheels, paddles, and screws, and would float atop Ligeia Mare -- Titan's largest lake, located near its north pole. 

After splashing down, the idea goes, TALISE would take a trip that would last anywhere from six months to a year, gathering liquid samples until reaching a Titanic coast.

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One proposed concept for the TALISE mission: a boat propelled by paddles to travel though Titan's largest lake (SENER)

The proposal for all this comes courtesy of SENER, a private engineering firm based in Spain. And the primary improvement the notional boat would offer over similar probes, the company says, is a kind of amphibiousness that would be particularly well-suited to Titan's land-and-liquid surface. "The main innovation in TALISE is the propulsion system," Igone Urdampilleta, a member of team proposing TALISE team, said in a statement. "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."

The idea, of course, is just that. It's one of many notional (and possibly fanciful) proposals people have put forward to explore the world beyond our atmosphere. If realized, though, a space boat -- a Titanic vessel of a cosmic kind -- would allow humans the most intimate contact we've ever had with a distant moon. A moon that is, in its way, enticingly similar to our Earth.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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