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Sailing the Titan Seas

samzenpus posted more than 3 years ago | from the we're-gonna-need-a-better-boat dept.

NASA 56

gpronger writes "The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) has been awarded the opportunity to explore the methane ocean on Titan. Next year APL will be submitting a project plan to NASA, which will be one of three submittals. If chosen, launch would be in 2016, with arrival at Titan in 2023. The 'Titan Mare Explorer' or TiME would be the first exploration of an extraterrestrial ocean with the craft landing and floating on the ocean. The mission would be led by principal investigator Ellen Stofan of Proxemy Research Inc. in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Lockheed Martin in Denver would build the TiME capsule, with scientific instruments provided by APL, Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego. This is part of NASA's Discovery Program and would be the next mission, funded and supported by NASA."

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Awesomeness (3, Interesting)

MightyMartian (840721) | more than 3 years ago | (#36099860)

On the sheer awesomeness factor, this rates pretty damned high. The only thing cooler would be a submarine in Europea's ocean, but that one, I imagine, is decades off.

Re:Awesomeness (1)

GodfatherofSoul (174979) | more than 3 years ago | (#36102060)

Just curious why you say that? I'm not an engineer, so maybe I don't appreciate what makes a robotic sub so difficult to pull off.

Re:Awesomeness (1)

GumphMaster (772693) | more than 3 years ago | (#36102234)

It's a hard problem. Getting it through kilometre thick ice as hard as rock (approx -160 Celsius) while negotiating things like rock that might be embedded in the ice, keeping the access path open if needed, providing some sort of power source that lasts more than a few hours in the liquid and icy conditions, and making it light enough to make the journey. You also need to come up with some way to relay the information back to Earth from under the ice so you probably also need a Europa orbiter.

Travel time to Jupiter is measured in years (6 for Galileo)... so there's a good chunk of your first decade gone.

Re:Awesomeness (1)

Dr. Spork (142693) | more than 3 years ago | (#36102652)

For the melting, why not make the submarine a sealed fission reactor and have it slowly melt its way through the ice with just heat and gravity. If the Fukushima reactor can melt its way through a concrete floor, I don't see why ice would be a problem. All that power would be useful for powering giant floodlights under the ice. And for the communication, you'd obviously want a relay station on the surface and another one in orbit around Europa. The latter might an earlier reconnaissance probe that's repurposed for that end. I don't pretend that this would be a simple mission, but I don't think the melting and the radio transmission would be the primary problems.

Re:Awesomeness (1)

mrchaotica (681592) | more than 3 years ago | (#36103160)

The problem with that is that anything nuclear gives everyone the heebie-jeebies (what if it blew up on the launchpad, for example?).

Re:Awesomeness (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36104448)

How would europeans think of us sending them so much radioactivity then ?

Re:Awesomeness (1)

RockDoctor (15477) | more than 3 years ago | (#36104834)

If the Fukushima reactor can melt its way through a concrete floor,

Huh?

Checks the IAEA status page [iaea.org] . No mention of reactors melting their way through concrete floors there.

Your source is?

Getting back to Europa ... if you hand-wave a large power supply onto Europa's surface then you have got round many problems, but not all.

another one in orbit around Europa. The latter might an earlier reconnaissance probe that's repurposed for that end.

Saturn's system is crowded - 60-odd moons known. How stable will an orbit around Europa be? Serious question.

Your previous, re-purposed probe presumably has it's own power supply, which will almost certainly be solar panels. Their lifetime? Their power output? Fuel for station-keeping and orbit correction?

It's not so simple. I would like it if it were that simple, but it's not.

Re:Awesomeness (1)

vegiVamp (518171) | more than 3 years ago | (#36105044)

Apart from the other replies here, I'm not sure we have the tech to build a reactor on a scale that we can also succesfully launch, if only due to the necessary shielding. We have nuclear submarines, and there's a few "maintenance-free" "home" reactors being developed, but much smaller than that? I dunno.

I would also be very hesitant to introduce something so potentially dangerous into an environment that we think may potentially harbour life - even if it's only bacterial. It'd be a shame to mass-murder the first alien species we encounter, wouldn't it?

Re:Awesomeness (1)

Hartree (191324) | more than 3 years ago | (#36114186)

The Russians have been flying nuclear reactors for quite a long while (since the 60s). They needed that level of power for some of their ocean scanning radar satellites (RORSAT [wikipedia.org] ). NASA flew the SNAP 10A which was a fission reactor in 1965.

As to shielding, don't start the reactor until it's way out in space. With no humans around, you only have to have enough shielding to protect the spacecraft electronics.

Re:Awesomeness (1)

vegiVamp (518171) | more than 3 years ago | (#36116410)

Which still leaves the question of introducing something so poorly shielded into a potentially life-harbouring environment. I know quantum mechanics says the act of observing changes the observed, but I feel it would be bad form to change it with radiation :-)

Re:Awesomeness (1)

Hartree (191324) | more than 3 years ago | (#36117378)

Yeah, there is that. But even there you can limit things.

My hunch (it'd need to be thought out more) is that there's not much chance of lots of life in the ice layer. Activate the reactor when it gets to the surface. The ice itself is a shield that limits radiation propagation. Melt through the ice until you are almost to the liquid, then have the undersea probe burrow the rest of the way. Leave the reactor shut down and entombed in the ice.

You'd need some kind of communications relay near the ice/liquid interface anyway. You could use electronics on the reactor body for that. Send the info up a trailed cable to a surface relay and use the residual heat in the reactor to power them for a long time.

The submarine probe can then explore without an unshielded reactor interfering with the instruments.

(Just a thought. Like I said, it'd need to be fleshed out. I keep being amazed at the range of places on earth that life shows up. Some of those microbes are tough little beasties.)

Re:Awesomeness (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36103430)

Apart from what GumpMaster said, we can't be sure that there even IS an ocean under Europa. Softer ice under the hard ice is an alternative possibility. We don't have equipment on the surface of Europa, and it's difficult to make such measurements from several light-hours away.

Kind of sucks to send your probe down through kilometers of ice until you run out of cable.

Re:Awesomeness (1)

c0lo (1497653) | more than 3 years ago | (#36102876)

On the sheer awesomeness factor, this rates pretty damned high. The only thing cooler would be a submarine in Europea's ocean, but that one, I imagine, is decades off.

A thing that would rate higher in awesomeness: building a pipe from Titan to sell LPG as a fuel for gas-guzzling 4WD on Earth. This would be something to excite even a red-neck in Alabama.

Re:Awesomeness (2)

countertrolling (1585477) | more than 3 years ago | (#36103108)

Europa is off limits

Re:Awesomeness (1)

NoSleepDemon (1521253) | more than 3 years ago | (#36105120)

+1 informative

Re:Awesomeness (1)

arth1 (260657) | more than 3 years ago | (#36105060)

The only thing cooler? I would think it would be cooler if they landed on Triton instead of Titan. Triton is probably the object in our Solar system farthest away from the sun where we could build a permanent base, and deserves a visit.

Re:Awesomeness (1)

Cogita (1119237) | more than 3 years ago | (#36105660)

The only thing cooler? I would think it would be cooler if they landed on Triton instead of Titan. Triton is probably the object in our Solar system farthest away from the sun where we could build a permanent base, and deserves a visit.

It's probably also a lot cooler since it's so much further away from the sun, too.

Submarine component (1)

witch-doktor (1592325) | more than 3 years ago | (#36099868)

I would very much like to see a submarine component to this. A floating base station and a robotic sub that made modest excursions underneath after the base station had done sonar mapping. Also, I sincerely hope all the androids part of this mission are non-smokers.

Re:Submarine component (1)

element-o.p. (939033) | more than 3 years ago | (#36100734)

Also, I sincerely hope all the androids part of this mission are non-smokers.

Unless they are bringing oxygen with them (which would be necessary for smoking, anyway) it won't really matter.

I would like to know... (3, Funny)

Rollgunner (630808) | more than 3 years ago | (#36099926)

The name of the guy who'll be in charge of decontaminating the TiME Capsule before launch, so if the Galactic Overlords show up and ask why we used a bioweapon to commit genocide on the peaceful bottom-dwelling protoplasmoids of Titan, I can point at *them* !

Re:I would like to know... (1, Funny)

DNS-and-BIND (461968) | more than 3 years ago | (#36100288)

I agree. The risk of contaminating another planet is just too great. We need to stay on our own planet and not fuck up the rest of the solar system. Defund NASA space exploration and put the money towards starving children.

Re:I would like to know... (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36100318)

That is absolutely and totally obscene. You are a horrible person. To advocate taking all the money from NASA and using it to STARVE children is insane. I hope you die.

Re:I would like to know... (2)

Dr Herbert West (1357769) | more than 3 years ago | (#36101008)

I had to make myself a drink just so I would have something to spray all over my keyboard.... tip of the hat to you, good sir!

Re:I would like to know... (1)

sinan (10073) | more than 3 years ago | (#36101070)

| That is absolutely and totally obscene. You are a horrible person. To advocate taking all the money from NASA and using it to STARVE children is insane. I hope you die.

This is absolute genius. I wish I had mod points....

Re:I would like to know... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36108464)

I thought he just meant that NASA's in debt ;)

Re:I would like to know... (4, Interesting)

RussR42 (779993) | more than 3 years ago | (#36102354)

I mean this in all seriousness, not as a troll or flamebait. After a reasonable look for indigenous life on the other planets, why not seed them with earth life? It seems unlikely that adapting to them would make the life we left there harmful to us and with just a little genetic engineering perhaps we can seed them in such a way to start rudimentary terraforming. Or even better, perhaps the bit of life we plant there will survive until the sun expands and the other planets/moons pass through the habitable zone and with the leg up we gave them by putting them there evolve into sentience with the time they would have. Sorry, distracted by wild imagination there. The question is, why not add life to lifeless worlds if we can? What harm could it do?

Re:I would like to know... (2)

countertrolling (1585477) | more than 3 years ago | (#36103126)

What harm could it do?

They will come back and attack us. Look what happened to Africa after it 'seeded' the rest of planet earth.

Re:I would like to know... (1)

RussR42 (779993) | more than 3 years ago | (#36103340)

Your user name is ironic! The moons would be "seeded" with very low level life such as bacteria. I think the bacteria that is here with us now will have a better shot at attacking us then the ones we plant on another world, esp after they have to adapt to the extreme conditions there unlike the local strains that can spend all their time trying to take advantage of humans. Oh hell, I'm drunk and seem to be writing in run on sentences...

Re:I would like to know... (1)

severn2j (209810) | more than 3 years ago | (#36151844)

Funnily enough, Stephen Baxter's book, Titan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Titan_%28Stephen_Baxter_novel%29) involves exactly that..

Re:I would like to know... (1)

RussR42 (779993) | more than 3 years ago | (#36173444)

I'll insert it in my reading que. Thanks.

Re:I would like to know... (1)

Digicrat (973598) | more than 3 years ago | (#36100648)

A mysterious person known only as the 'Doctor' has been chosen to clear all craft as contamination free prior to landing using some form of sonic sterilization 'screwdriver.'

In all seriousness though, decontamination of landers/spacecraft is a concept that's well known, and has been since it was first proposed by Carl Sagan. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planetary_protection [wikipedia.org]

Re:I would like to know... (1)

Iron Condor (964856) | more than 3 years ago | (#36101674)

The name of the guy who'll be in charge of decontaminating the TiME Capsule before launch,...

Apparently "John D. Rummel" according to this (admittedly a few years outdated) article:

http://www.slate.com/id/2099222/ [slate.com]

Re:I would like to know... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36105554)

Morris Day

How are they going to test it? (4, Interesting)

blair1q (305137) | more than 3 years ago | (#36099960)

Are they going to build a pool of liquid methane in which to test this?

I mean, a giant, sealed, cryogenic methane containment tank with N layers of protection so that it doesn't, you know, mix with air and explode?

Re:How are they going to test it? (1)

MightyMartian (840721) | more than 3 years ago | (#36100186)

Yeah, because NASA has no experience with dealing with highly unstable compounds.

Re:How are they going to test it? (1)

blair1q (305137) | more than 3 years ago | (#36101616)

Have you seen the protocols for dealing with such things? They're only shorter than a Library of Congress because they're geared towards loading the hazmat onto the rocket once, then blowing it into space.

Having to continually cycle this thing as they fit it for different tests, mod it for bug fixes, etc., is going to be an order of magnitude trickier.

Re:How are they going to test it? (1)

Trogre (513942) | more than 3 years ago | (#36102344)

You mean like governments?

Re:How are they going to test it? (1)

RockDoctor (15477) | more than 3 years ago | (#36104942)

If they have to, yes. I don't see why not.

Moderate cryogenic storage of liquified hydrocarbons is a well-known industrial technique. You can get pressurised propane/ butane mix at any camping store. Pure propane is moderately more difficult. Ethane - shouldn't be a problem. I'm trying to remember if methane is higher or lower boiling point than nitrogen ... Methane 112K, nitrogen 72K ; that's good.

I see tankers of liquid nitrogen on the road all the time round here, so the temperatures aren't a problem. And you could purge the headspace above the methane with nitrogen to avoid fire worries.

I don't see any show stoppers. If it's needed, it could be done, and no major new technologies need developing.

Re:How are they going to test it? (1)

blair1q (305137) | more than 3 years ago | (#36109644)

The thing is a hazard every time you open the hatch to deal with the device under test. See above for my take on draining and purging with nitrogen. It's fiddly, but it can work. Temperature is the least of the problem.

Re:How are they going to test it? (1)

RockDoctor (15477) | more than 3 years ago | (#36113566)

I wouldn't say that temperature is the least of the problems - temperature isn't a problem for O-ring seals either, but try telling that to the crew of whats-that-shuttle's-name.

But handling gases (under containment) is one set of issues, and handling flammable gasses is another set of issues.

There are likely to be "learning experiences", but since the space is hardly unexplorerd ... I wouldn't be overly worried about it. From a distance.

Re:How are they going to test it? (2)

Overzeetop (214511) | more than 3 years ago | (#36105118)

Easy - extra beans in the Chipotle burritos and then hang out in a commercial freezer for the afternoon. Chilled methane coming right up! (or would that be down?)

I wonder what Jack Sparrow would say? (1)

icebeing (458161) | more than 3 years ago | (#36100018)

Ahoy! There be lotsa oil here, maties! ARRRRRRRRR! Air's a bit musty though, meeh could be worse!

Re:I wonder what Jack Sparrow would say? (1)

MightyMartian (840721) | more than 3 years ago | (#36100196)

I don't imagine any long-chain hydrocarbons, but if we could build a methane economy, well, Titan probably has enough of it to keep us going for a helluva long time.

A little niggle (1)

kyle5t (1479639) | more than 3 years ago | (#36100206)

This craft doesn't actually have a sail. It gets blown around by the wind, hopefully for a while before getting stuck on some shoreline.

Spreading our reach (1)

supertrinko (1396985) | more than 3 years ago | (#36100230)

Best news from NASA I've heard in a while, spreading our influence even further. We have craft on the Moon, Mars, some crushed craft on Venus, and soon to be Titan if all goes to plan.

Re:Spreading our reach (1)

Wyatt Earp (1029) | more than 3 years ago | (#36100338)

We've had a craft on Titan before.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cassini [wikipedia.org] –Huygens#Huygens_probe

Re:Spreading our reach (1)

supertrinko (1396985) | more than 3 years ago | (#36100570)

I wasn't speaking of fly-bys. I mean actual landings.

Re:Spreading our reach (4, Informative)

Wyatt Earp (1029) | more than 3 years ago | (#36100668)

From the link I originally paste before /. misparsed it.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huygens_probe [wikipedia.org]

"Huygens separated from the Cassini orbiter on December 25, 2004, and landed on Titan on January 14, 2005 near the Xanadu region. This was the first landing ever accomplished in the outer solar system. It touched down on land, although the possibility that it would touch down in an ocean was also taken into account in its design. Even though it was never officially designated a lander, the probe continued to send data for about 90 minutes after reaching the surface."

Re:Spreading our reach (1)

supertrinko (1396985) | more than 3 years ago | (#36100736)

My mistake then, thanks for the info.

robots are very cost effective (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36101534)

The manned space program costs a few billion a year. That could pay for a big increase robotic missions.

nah (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36101026)

more like sailing the sausage seas!

submittal??? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36102098)

ever heard of the word "submission"?

Re:submittal??? (1)

eepok (545733) | more than 3 years ago | (#36107130)

This kills me, too.

"Let's synergize our incentivization submittals so we may provide service of excellence to our patrons!" /vomit

Nice Acronym (2)

hoover (3292) | more than 3 years ago | (#36103752)

Hmm, nice mission acryonm, makes we wonder what they'll name the TItan Thermal Sensors on that probe ;-)

Re:Nice Acronym (1)

arisvega (1414195) | more than 3 years ago | (#36104414)

Tim- Tim- TimmmYYYYEEE !
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