NASA is considering its weirdest space mission yet – sailing a robot boat on the methane lakes of Titan, Saturn’s sixth and largest moon.
The project – which we like not just for its ambition but also for its codename, “TiME”, which stands for Titan Mare Explorer – is one of three on a shortlist for launch in 2016.
Titan is big, half as big again as our own moon. It has a nitrogen atmosphere, and lakes of liquid hydrocarbon – the only large liquid geographical features found anywhere other than Earth. No wonder NASA is so keen to take a closer look at them.
If it goes ahead, the TiME lander (perhaps we should call it a splasher?) would float on the Titanian seas, drifting with whatever currents are passing by, since it would have no means to propel itself around.
Solar panels won’t work in Titan’s atmosphere, so power would come from a chunk of plutonium – another first for the mission.
TiME’s tasks would be to study the chemistry of the sea, find out how deep it is, monitor the local weather (including possible methane rain) and keep an eye out for coastlines and islands.
It’s by no means certain that TiME will go ahead. It’s up against two other finalists, GEMS (a mission to Mars) and Comet Hopper (you can guess where that’s going).