While NASA gained plaudits for its most excellent and innovative sky crane landing technique that successfully dropped its Mars Curiosity Rover onto the planet Mars, we do note that since choosing that mission, NASA appears to have become more risk averse, and, dare we say it, a little more boring in its mission choices.
Flightglobal’s Hyperbola column/blog recently pointed out that instead of choosing fly a rocket powered glider in the Martian atmosphere, NASA had instead chosen a little more conventional, if uninspiring, Mars orbiter mission called MAVEN for its funding.
Another example of perhaps a loss of NASA nerve, the administration failed to chose a very exciting and innovative mission called TiME which would have used a boat to make nautical exploration of Titan. Instead, the administration elected to send a lower risk landing mission to Mars (yes - yet another mission to that planet).
Artist’s impression of TALISE and TiME shown on a methane sea/lake with the nearby planet Saturn in the sky. Courtesy: Bisbos.com
Sailing the distant seas would have taken a whole new meaning if NASA’s TiME (Titan Mare Explorer) mission proposal to send the first ever naval vessel to another world to sail on extra-terrestrial seas had been accepted for funding.
For having discovered large methane/hydrocarbon seas on the Saturn moon Titan and even managing to image them and their surrounding coastlines using the Huygens probe during its slow parachute descent (Huygens did show some very interesting coastlines that were reminiscent of those on England’s south coast) there was scientists wanted to analyse further the Titan moon’s hydrocarbon seas, rivers and lakes,.
Photograph of the coastline and rivers on Titan taken by the Huygens probe during its descent gave more than a hint that it was like Littlehampton on the South Coast of England albeit except with a methane sea. Courtesy: ESA/Huygens
TiME, it was planned, would splash down on one of Titan’s methane lakes or seas to help determine if its methane replenishment cycle this analogous to the hydrological cloud, rain, river, lake and sea cycle that exists on Earth.
The TiME mission would have been launched in 2016, to land its 28kg mass 140w power boat payload in 2023 descending and splashing down on the Ligeia Mare or possibly the Kraken Mare. From there it would take solar measurements and mass spectrometer chemical analysis of the sea. Though the craft would have no propulsion system it would drift around for 14 years taking images and meteorological readings as it did so. All data would be beamed directly back to Earth.
To electrically power the mission, while batteries were to be carried, to charge them it was also proposed to carry a nuclear Plutonium 238 isotope decay-powered Stirling generator for an electrical power conversion which is four times as efficient as current Radioisotope Thermal Generator (RTG) technologies.
Sadly, under NASA’s Discovery mission programme competition, in August 2012 TiME’s $425 million plan was beaten by the somewhat more conservative InSight mission to land a probe on Mars to find out if the planet has a solid or liquid core. However, But all may not be lost as the European Space Agency (ESA) may be ready to pick up the baton.
Following on from NASA’s work, the ESA, which itself originally got substantial kudos for its Huygens Titan probe as part of the Cassini-Huygens mission, is now examining a proposal to put a similar exploration “boat” onto the Seas of Titan.
The TALISE Titan boat design ensvisages using paddle (shown here) or screw propulsion. Courtesy: SENER
Under the title of the Titan Lake In-situ Sampling Propelled Explorer (TALISE), this new plan again involves splashing down such a craft onto the Ligeia Mare. While its mission duration would be cut significantly compared to NASA’s TiME, lasting one year instead of a projected 14, TALISE would have its own propulsion system to navigate itself around the Titan coastline – probably using a paddle or screw arrangement. Spain is leading the charge in promoting the mission with the Spanish engineering firm SENER working on propulsion concepts for the mission.
Update August 2013: The US Senate is considering making NASA fund one of the two Discovery mission finalists which missed out on their original mission funding. TiME as devised by teh Applied Physics Laboratory is thus again in competition with a mission called Comet Hopper (from the University of Maryland). As such, there may be the potential for a joint TiME/TALISE mission with ESA.