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

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

[optional image description]
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.

[optional image description]
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.

[optional image description]
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.

Presented by

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

Does This Child Need Marijuana?

Dravet Syndrome is a severe form of epilepsy that affects children. Could marijuana oils alleviate their seizures?

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Does This Child Need Marijuana?

Inside a family's fight to use marijuana oils to treat epilepsy


A Miniature 1950s Utopia

A reclusive artist built this idealized suburb to grapple with his painful childhood memories.


Why Principals Matter

Nadia Lopez didn't think anybody cared about her school. Then the Internet heard her story.


A History of Contraception

In the 16th century, men used linen condoms laced shut with ribbons.


'A Music That Has No End'

In Spain, a flamenco guitarist hustles to make a modest living.

More in Technology

Just In