Scientists have proposed a plan to send a nuclear-powered drone to Saturn's moon Titan, which is 10 times more distant from the sun than Earth and has a methane atmosphere that is four times a dense.
Led by BYU professor Jani Radebaugh, the plan is to put the drone in Titan for a year-long flight so it can observe the moon which shares many similarities with the Earth like rivers, oceans, mountains, sand dunes and winds.
"Titan is a really interesting place as far as understanding the processes on the early Earth," said Radebaugh. "It orbits at a good distance, has organic molecules of carbon and hydrogen, there's energy in the atmosphere and perhaps occasionally water on or near the surface - those are the main things considered necessary for life."
According to the scientists, the proposed drone will operate on a nuclear battery that can power a couple light bulbs. The battery would power a propeller except when it needed to beam data back to radio telescopes on earth, however, prior to these transmissions, the drone would climb high into Titan's atmosphere. Power would then shift to the radio cone in the drone's nose as the aircraft glides back down to its usual flight altitude, the researchers explained.
Published in the Experimental Astronomy, Radebaugh and his group noted that while transporting the drone to Titan would take up to 7 years, once there the communication relay time would take a mere 90 minutes.
Titan is of great interest to scientists because it is the only moon in the solar system known to have clouds and a mysterious, thick, planet-like atmosphere. Recent researches have also found Titan to be more Earth-like than previously thought. Here are some interesting facts about this object in the solar system.
• Titan is the biggest of the 53 known moons orbiting Saturn. It is a cold world enclosed by a thick, hazy atmosphere that is yet to be penetrated by telescopes and cameras.
• Titan is the second largest moon in our solar system with an equatorial radius of 2,575 km (1,600 miles). It's bigger than Earth's Moon and the planet Mercury.
• Titan's surface temperature is about -289 degrees Fahrenheit (-178 degrees Celsius).
• Titan orbits Saturn at a distance of about 1.2 million km (745,000 miles), taking almost 16 days to complete a full orbit.
• Titan was discovered on 25 March 1655 by the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens.
Radebaugh wants to collect the data from Titan to get more information on how the moon's geology has formed.
"One of the main things we're looking for is life or precursors for life. Titan has a lot of molecules made of carbon and hydrogen, there's water ice bedrock, and water volcanoes," Radebaugh said.
"With water, organic molecules, and energy, that's all the ingredients for life. It's a really good place to look for precursory biology," he added.
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