Titan is a place that, on the outset, appears to possess many things that seem uncannily familiar – oceans, rivers, snow-capped mountains and even an active weather system.
Take a closer look however and it soon becomes apparent that Titan couldn’t be more alien. Its rivers and oceans aren’t filled with liquid water but with an exotic form of liquid hydrocarbons, while its snow-capped peaks are actually dusted with a coating of methane, not water ice.
NASA is already planning to send one explorary vehicle to Titan – a specially designed drone with eight rotors named ‘Dragonfly’ that will not only land on the surface, but also ‘hop’ between areas of interest once every 16 days.
Now a second mission is being considered – this time with the goal of landing on Titan, collecting samples and returning them to Earth for further study.
By far the most complex sample-return concept ever devised, the mission could involve using the methane on Titan to produce the fuel needed to get the spacecraft back home.
The idea is currently being investigated thanks to a $125,000 grant funded by NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.
“Despite the greater distance to Titan than to the Moon or Mars, we argue that this ISRU (In-Situ Return Utilization) is actually easier to do, and yet has significantly higher performance, than the more complicated chemical-reduction processes previously proposed for Mars and the Moon,” said NASA’s Steven Oleson.
“Although some technology development would be required, we believe such a mission could be easily accomplished in the next decade.”