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Next moon rover could be a boat—on Titan

Oct. 1 , 2012
Courtesy of 
and World Science staff

They’ve land­ed rov­ers on Mars. Now, say sci­en­tists, it’s time to land a boat on Ti­tan, the ha­zy larg­est moon of Sat­urn.

This out­land­ish sce­nar­i­o could be­come real­ity, ac­cord­ing to sci­en­tists who pre­sented the pro­pos­als at the Eu­ro­pe­an Plan­e­tary Sci­ence Con­gress on Sept. 27.

This ren­der­ing of the pro­posed TALISE probe shows one pos­si­ble means of pro­pul­sion: wheels on ei­ther side of the probe. (Cred­it: SENER)


Ti­tan is one of the most Earth-like bod­ies in the So­lar Sys­tem, though it is only slightly larg­er than its small­est plan­et, Mer­cu­ry. With a thick at­mos­phere and a net­work of seas, lakes and riv­ers, it is in many re­spects more like a plan­et than a moon like the Earth’s.

The Cassini-Huy­gens mis­sion, which stud­ied Ti­tan ex­ten­sively in the 2000s, found that lakes, seas and riv­ers of liq­uid hy­dro­car­bons (si­m­i­lar to house­hold gas) ex­ist, cov­er­ing much of the satel­lite’s north­ern half. Al­though it land­ed on sol­id ground, the Huy­gens lan­der was de­signed to be able to float brief­ly.

The new plan pro­poses a boat probe called the Ti­tan Lake In-situ Sam­pling Pro­pelled Ex­plor­er. The con­cept is be­ing de­vel­oped as a part­ner­ship be­tween SENER and the Cen­ter for As­tro­bi­ol­o­gy in Ma­drid. The craft would land in the mid­dle of Li­ge­ia Mare—the big­gest known lake, near Ti­tan’s north pole—then head for the coast, tak­ing var­i­ous mea­sure­ments along the way. The mis­sion would last around six months to a year.

This ren­der­ing of the pro­posed probe shows an­oth­er pos­si­ble means of pro­pul­sion: screws on ei­ther side of the probe. By turn­ing, they push the sur­round­ing ma­terial back­ward, and the craft for­ward. (Cred­it: SENER)


The pro­pul­sion sys­tem has not yet been de­cid­ed but pos­si­bil­i­ties un­der con­sid­era­t­ion in­clude paddle-wheels or screw pro­pul­sion, an un­usu­al meth­od that has been used suc­cess­fully by ve­hi­cles in swampy ter­rains. 

The sys­tem would have to let the probe “move, un­der con­trol, from the land­ing site in the lake, to the clos­est shore,” said a mem­ber of the proj­ect team, Igone Ur­dampil­leta of the Ma­drid -based en­gi­neer­ing com­pa­ny SENER In­genería y Sis­temas S.A. 

The craft would pick up “liq­uid and sol­id sam­ples from sev­er­al sci­en­tif­ic in­ter­est­ing loca­t­ions on Ti­tan’s sur­face such as the land­ing place, along the route to­wards the shore and fi­nally at the shore­line.”

Ti­tan’s en­vi­ron­ment is too cold for life as we know it, but its en­vi­ron­ment, rich in the build­ing blocks of life, is of great in­ter­est to as­tro­bi­ol­o­gists, spe­cial­ists in the study of po­ten­tial life in out­er space. The satel­lite’s at­mos­phere is made up largely of ni­tro­gen like Earth’s, and is rich in or­gan­ic com­pounds and hy­dro­gen cy­a­nide, which may have played a role in the emer­gence of life on Earth.


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Humanity has landed a rover on Mars. Now, say scientists, it’s time to land a boat on Titan, the hazy largest moon of Saturn. This outlandish scenario could become reality, according to scientists who presented the proposals at the European Planetary Science Congress on Sept. 27. Titan is one of the most Earth-like bodies in the Solar System, though it is only slightly larger than its smallest planet, Mercury. With a thick atmosphere and a network of seas, lakes and rivers, it is in many respects more like a planet than a moon like the Earth’s. The Cassini-Huygens mission, which studied Titan extensively in the 2000s, found that lakes, seas and rivers of liquid hydrocarbons (similar to household gas) exist, covering much of the satellite’s northern half. Although it eventually landed on solid ground, the Hugyens lander was designed to be able to float briefly. The new plan proposes a boat probe called the Titan Lake In-situ Sampling Propelled Explorer. The concept is being developed as a partnership between SENER and the Center for Astrobiology in Madrid. The craft would land in the middle of Ligeia Mare—the biggest known lake, near Titan’s north pole—then head for the coast, taking various measurements along the way. The mission would last around six months to a year. The propulsion system has not yet been decided but possibilities under consideration include paddle-wheels or screw propulsion, an unusual method that has been used successfully by vehicles in swampy terrains. The system would have to let the probe “move, under control, from the landing site in the lake, to the closest shore,” said a member of the project team, Igone Urdampilleta of the Madrid -based engineering company SENER Ingenería y Sistemas S.A. The craft would pick up “liquid and solid samples from several scientific interesting locations on Titan’s surface such as the landing place, along the route towards the shore and finally at the shoreline.” Titan’s environment is too cold for life as we know it, but its environment, rich in the building blocks of life, is of great interest to astrobiologists, specialists in the study of potential life in outer space. The satellite’s atmosphere is made up largely of nitrogen like Earth’s, and is rich in organic compounds and hydrogen cyanide, which may have played a role in the emergence of life on Earth.