June 17, 2014

Balloons, Drones and Submarines for exploring Saturn's Moon Titan and other outer moons and planets

Quadcopter or other rotorcraft Drones and Balloons for Exploring Titan

Saturn’s giant moon Titan has become one of the most fascinating bodies in the Solar System. Titan is the richest laboratory in the solar system for studying prebiotic chemistry, which makes studying its chemistry from the surface and in the atmosphere one of the most important objectives in planetary science. The diversity of surface features on Titan related to organic solids and liquids makes long-range mobility with surface access important. This has not been possible, because mission concepts to date have had either no mobility (landers), no surface access (balloons and airplanes), or low maturity, high risk, and/or high development costs for this environment (e,g. large, self-sufficient, long-duration helicopters). We propose a mission study of a small (less than 10 kg) rotorcraft that can deploy from a balloon or lander to acquire close-up, high resolution imagery and mapping data of the surface, land at multiple locations to acquire microscopic imagery and samples of solid and liquid material, return the samples to the mothership for analysis, and recharge from an RTG on the mothership to enable multiple sorties. Prior studies have shown the feasibility of aerial mobility on Titan for larger aircraft, from 10 to 400 kg, but none of these studies were in the size range we address and none addressed the daughtercraft, sampling, and recharging scenarios we address. This concept is enabled now by recent advances in autonomous navigation and miniaturization of sensors, processors, and sampling devices. It revolutionizes previous mission concepts in several ways. For a lander mission, it enables detailed studies of a large area around the lander, providing context for the micro-images and samples; with precision landing near a lake, it potentially enables sampling solid and liquid material from one lander. For a balloon mission, it enables surface investigation and sampling with global reach without requiring a separate lander or that the balloon be brought to the surface, which has potential for major cost savings and risk reduction.

Both scenarios can involve repeated sorties due to the recharge capability.

Our phase 1 study activities will

(1) develop mission concepts of operations for deployment from a lander or balloon to acquire context imaging and mapping data, to sample from solid surfaces and/or lakes, and to return to the mothership to deposit samples and/or recharge;

(2) develop a parametric sizing model of the daughtercraft to characterize propulsion, power, range, endurance, and payload capability for total daughtercraft mass ranging from approximately 1 to 10 kg;

(3) develop a conceptual design and identify representative components for the entire daughtercraft hardware and software system for autonomous mobility, including estimates of approximate mass, power, and energy budgets and producing a representative CAD model; and

(4) develop a conceptual design and preliminary CAD model for a science payload on the daughtercraft, including specifying a nominal instrument suite on the balloon or lander, designing a compatible sampling mechanism to acquire solid and/or liquid samples on the daughtercraft, and studying mechanisms and daughtercraft behaviors necessary to transfer the samples to the instruments.

The study will be done by JPL with support from AeroVironment for rotorcraft expertise and developing the sizing model. By analyzing Titan’s surface, this mission concept may teach us volumes about prebiotic chemical evolution on a planetary surface. This concept has potential for affordable insertion into Discovery, New Frontiers, or Flagship missions and could provide a technology validation step toward larger, self-contained Titan rotorcraft missions in the future. The autonomy needed for this concept is also applicable to exciting rotorcraft mission concepts for Mars and to in-situ exploration of Enceladus. It will engage the public and has abundant, compelling opportunities for education and public outreach.

Submarines for Exploring Titan

Titan is unique in the outer solar system in that it is the only one of the bodies outside the Earth with liquid lakes and seas on its surface. The Titanian seas, however, are not composed of water, like Earth’s seas, but are seas of liquid hydrocarbons. What lies beneath the surface of Titan’s seas? We propose to develop a conceptual design of a submersible autonomous vehicle (submarine) to explore extraterrestrial seas. Specifically, to send a submarine to Titan’s largest northern sea, Kraken Mare. This craft will autonomously carry out detailed scientific investigations under the surface of Kraken Mare, providing unprecedented knowledge of an extraterrestrial sea and expanding NASA’s existing capabilities in planetary exploration to include in situ nautical operations. Sprawling over some 1000 km, with depths estimated at 300 m, Kraken Mare is comparable in size to the Great Lakes and represents an opportunity for an unprecedented planetary exploration mission. This mission would be a logical follow-on to a Titan surface mission such as TiME (Titan Mare Explorer) or even a component of a flagship mission of multiple vehicles. The mission concept we propose to study will investigate a full spectrum of oceanographic phenomena: chemical composition of the liquid, surface and subsurface currents, mixing and layering in the “water” column, tides, wind and waves, bathymetry, and bottom features and composition. Measurements of all these aspects of Titan’s hydrocarbon ocean environment can only be made through focused in situ exploration with a well-instrumented craft. This investigation represents a significant advancement in our understanding of the history and evolution of organic compounds in the solar system, and hence a critical step along the path to understanding the evolution of life here on Earth and potential life elsewhere in the galaxy. While concepts of exploring extraterrestrial oceans, specifically Titan’s, have been proposed in the past they have centered on simple suspended probes or ‘diving bells’ (Lorenz, 2009, Epperly et al., 2010.)

Titan Submarine, or Titan Sub for short, will be a fully autonomous, highly capable science craft that will allow a complete exploration of what exists beneath the waves on another world. As such no one has yet envisioned what such a craft might look like, how it would operate or if it could be built; this is the conceptual mission design work we propose with Titan Sub. The Titan Sub addresses NASA’s strategic goals 2, 3, and 6 by exploring the Titan environ-ment which could hold clues to how earth and life formed, it will create new technologies in the form of a semi-autonomous planetary submersible which could be extended to other planetary oceans, and would capture the imaginations of educators and students by sharing with them exploration of a completely new environment on a foreign world. Titan Sub will also address the NASA technology areas of Space Power and Energy Storage, Robotics and Autonomous Systems, Communications and Navigation Systems, Science Instruments and Sensors, Materials, and Thermal Management Systems. By addressing the challenges of autonomous submersible exploration in a cold outer solar system environment, Titan Sub serves as a pathfinder for even more exotic future exploration of the subsurface water oceans of Europa etc

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