What do the hydrocarbon seas on Titan really look like? While the upcoming Dragonfly helicopter mission to Saturn’s hazy, frozen moon should arrive by 2034 to explore Titan’s atmosphere, there is still a need for a mission that can study the moon’s mysterious seas and lakes filled with liquid hydrocarbons.
But what about an aircraft that can study both the seas and skies of Titan?
The new mission concept that received funding from NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts Program (NIAC) is called “TitanAir,” and it features a flying boat known as a laker. The lake will be outfitted with numerous instruments for sipping and tasting both air and liquid, all while hovering and sailing, transitioning seamlessly between navigating Titan’s atmosphere and gliding through its lakes, like a seaplane on Earth.
TitanAir is one of 14 visionary ideas that have received $175,000 in NIAC Phase 1 funding, which provides support to help materialize potential breakthrough concepts that could transform future missions.
TitanAir is the brainchild of Quinn Morley and his company Planet Enterprises. Morley brings 15 years of experience working for Boeing and is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. This is Morley’s second NIAC award, as in 2021 he won another Phase 1 grant to investigate the development of low-cost, self-driving robotic “bots” capable of drilling deeply on Mars. This concept is currently under consideration for a Phase II NIAC grant.
“I confuse a ridiculous sense of creativity with a talent for technical writing and a strong aerospace manufacturing background,” Morley wrote on his website, adding that he is the first undergraduate to be named a principal investigator for NIAC.
The idea of Titan Air is that the lake will be able to “drink” in methane condensate and Organic materials Through a permeable section on the leading edge of the wings. The negative capillary features on the inside of the wing will bring in fluids Science tools, just like how plants draw water from their roots into their leaves, or how paper towels make a “quick top picker”. This is also how rocket fuel tanks are designed to be able to re-ignite in a weightless environment, as the veins in the tank will open the fluids into the suction port.
“I’ve been fascinated by poetic influences in everyday life since I was a kid, but what really drew me was Don Petit’s cup of coffee on the International Space Station,” Morley wrote on his LinkedIn account.
In 2008, astronaut Don Pettit wanted to enjoy his morning drink on the International Space Station in a cup of coffee instead of a bag, so he invented a cup that works in microgravity by using capillary action to control the flow of liquid. The cross section of the cup is similar Plane wingThe narrow angle wicks the liquid upwards.
“Somehow I took an idea inspired by a space cup of coffee and a messy spill in the fridge, got a team of amazing people to work with me, and mixed it all into a winning NIAC concept over the summer vacation,” said Morley. “I’m not sure how I was inspired to get the liquid in through the permeable wing skin. I remember focusing on the idea for a while, not knowing what to do with the wing bullnose filled with liquid.”
The impressive team put together by Morley includes Dr. Narasimha Boddeti, Dr. Steven Collicott, Laura Forczyk, and Dr. Peter Buhler.
Titan is the only body in the solar system – apart from Earth – known to have lakes and surface lakes. But at Titan’s frigid surface temperatures — about -180 degrees Celsius (-292 degrees Fahrenheit) — liquid methane and ethane dominate Titan’s hydrocarbon equivalent of Earth’s water.
Titan Air was landing and taking off from the lakes, and could fly and fly at low altitudes for about an hour each day.
Like NASA’s upcoming Dragonfly, any airborne mission to Titan will get a boost from the moon’s atmosphere, which is four times the density of Earth’s atmosphere. Combined with Titan’s low gravity (13.8% of Earth’s), Morley told Universe Today, it’s about 27 times easier for any powered flight on Titan, but only if the aircraft’s wings are very long and thin.
“The advantage of airplanes is ‘soaring flight’ – so you can cruise in level flight with much less force than on the ground,” Morley said via email. “So, if you want to slowly increase altitude, you can probably do it with 20 times less force than in ground-steady flight.”
As for the design of the TitanAir, Morley cautioned that his current investigation is focused on determining the feasibility of liquid-swallowing technologies for an aircraft on Titan.
“So, the plane is kind of the stop or pause,” Morley explained. NIAC calls this Mission Context.
But for now, Morley and his team base the plane’s size on a typical general aviation plane on the ground, like a small Cessna. In their whitepaper, the team lists their weight in context at around a ton with a wingspan of 10 meters (30 feet). The wings must be inflatable to fit inside the spacecraft that will bring TitanAir to the Saturn system.
“Honestly, the size of the lake is not restricted at the moment, because the requirements for floating on a lake and being in the air are kind of contradictory,” Morley told Universe Today. “If we resize the entire craft for a pond-lake situation, the wings could be quite long. The inflatable wings would really give us the longer wingspan we need to support the large fuselage, and give us reasonable efficiency during prolonged performance flights, while still being adaptable in stage fairing.” the second “.
As for instrumentation, a next-generation Urey-type instrument that would include an integrated suite designed to search for biomarkers “would be well-suited for the analysis of complex organic matter” is under consideration. In total, the devices will have a mass of less than 20 kg, but can be adapted to a wide range of aircraft sizes.
The other instrument being studied by Morley and his team relies on Dragonfly’s sampling system called DrACO (Drill for Acquisition of Complex Organic Materials), which will extract material from Titan’s surface and deliver it to a mass spectrometer. If drills are fitted to the heads of lake pavilions, they can sample shoreline material.
“The lacquer can swing its wing above the shore and perform sampling activities from the safety of the lagoon,” Morley wrote, adding that this could be a risky task for a rover like the Dragonfly due to its potential to get stuck. “This could amplify the return of science and open up access to hard-to-reach evidence of the hydrological cycle.”
While the team lists several challenges that must be overcome, such as having materials for wings and fuselages that can withstand Titan’s extreme cold and stand up to toxic hydrocarbons, the benefit of the TitanAir concept is that it could support many of the recommendations in the Decadal Survey to study Titan and understand the mysterious methane cycle. It will also contribute to the understanding of planetary atmospheres that require multiple missions and spacecraft, leading to lower costs.
“There are few options that could contribute to all of these questions in a meaningful way, but we feel this concept has the potential to change the conversation about climate science, the chemistry of the prebiotic atmosphere, lake formation and the habitability of Titan,” Morley and the team concluded in their paper.
The white paper is available online: www.planet.enterprises/_files/…934cba43ef2058c2.pdf
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