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Craft may sail seas on distant moon

May 9, 2011
Courtesy of The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
and World Science staff

NASA is con­sid­er­ing send­ing a probe to a sea of Sat­urn’s moon Ti­tan as one of three op­tions for a so­lar sys­tem mis­sion lat­er this dec­ade.

Sci­en­tists want to par­a­chute a cap­sule packed with sci­en­tif­ic in­stru­ments in­to a vast pool of meth­ane and eth­ane on the fog­gy, com­plex world, whose chem­is­try is thought to po­ten­tially be like that of early Earth in some ways.

The Johns Hop­kins Un­ivers­ity Ap­plied Phys­ics Lab­o­r­a­to­ry in Lau­rel, Md., would man­age the Ti­tan Ma­re Ex­plor­er proj­ect, de­vel­oped to per­form the first di­rect in­spec­tion of an ocean en­vi­ron­ment be­yond Earth.

The cap­sule would launch in 2016 and reach Ti­tan in 2023, land­ing in the moon’s second-largest north­ern sea, the Li­ge­ia Ma­re. For 96 days the cap­sule would study the com­po­si­tion and be­hav­ior of the sea and its in­ter­ac­tion with Ti­tan’s weath­er and cli­mate. The probe would al­so seek ev­i­dence of com­plex or­gan­ic chem­is­try pos­sibly ac­tive on Ti­tan, which could be si­m­i­lar to pro­cesses that led to life on Earth.

NASA chose the Ti­tan proj­ect last week as one of three can­di­dates for its Dis­cov­ery pro­gram, aimed at spon­sor­ing fre­quent, cost-capped so­lar sys­tem ex­plora­t­ion mis­sions with fo­cused sci­en­tif­ic goals. The oth­er can­di­dates are a NASA Je­t Pro­pul­sion Lab­o­r­a­to­ry lan­der that would study the Mar­tian in­te­ri­or, and a NASA God­dard Space Flight Cen­ter proj­ect to land on a com­et mul­ti­ple times and ob­serve its in­ter­ac­tion with the Sun. 

The options were cho­sen from 28 pro­pos­als. Each in­ves­ti­ga­t­ion team pro­pos­ing the mis­sions will now get $3 mil­lion to de­vel­op a de­tailed con­cept stu­dy. Af­ter anoth­er re­view next year, NASA plans to pick one to de­vel­op for launch. The cho­sen mis­sion will be cost-capped at $425 mil­lion, not in­clud­ing launch ve­hi­cle fund­ing. The Ti­tan mis­sion would be led by prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor El­len Sto­fan of Prox­emy Re­search Inc. in Gai­thers­burg, Md.


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NASA is considering sending a probe to explore the seas of Saturn’s moon Titan, as one of three options for a solar system mission later this decade. Scientists want to parachute a capsule packed with scientific instruments into a sea of methane and ethane on the foggy, complex world, whose chemistry is thought to potentially be like that of early Earth in some ways. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., would manage the Titan Mare Explorer project, developed to perform the first direct inspection of an ocean environment beyond Earth. The capsule would launch in 2016 and reach Titan in 2023, landing the moon’s second-largest northern sea, the Ligeia Mare. For 96 days the capsule would study the composition and behavior of the sea and its interaction with Titan’s weather and climate. The probe would also seek evidence of complex organic chemistry possibly active on Titan, which could be similar to processes that led to life on Earth. NASA chose the Titan project last week as one of three candidates for its Discovery program, aimed at sponsoring frequent, cost-capped solar system exploration missions with focused scientific goals. The other candidates are a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory lander that would study the Martian interior, and a NASA Goddard project to land on a comet multiple times and observe its interaction with the Sun. Chosen from 28 full-mission proposals, each investigation team proposing the missions will now get $3 million to develop a detailed concept study. After another review next year, NASA plans to pick one to develop for launch. The chosen mission will be cost-capped at $425 million, not including launch vehicle funding. The Titan mission would be led by principal investigator Ellen Stofan of Proxemy Research Inc. in Gaithersburg, Md.