Jason Barnes (University of Idaho) and a team of 30 scientists and engineers created an unmanned mission concept to explore Titan called AVIATR (Aerial Vehicle for In-situ and Airborne Titan Reconnaissance). The plan, which primarily consists of a 120 kg plane soaring through the natural satellite’s atmosphere, was published online late last month.
We describe a mission concept for a stand-alone Titan airplane mission: Aerial Vehicle for In-situ and Airborne Titan Reconnaissance (AVIATR). With independent delivery and direct-to-Earth communications, AVIATR could contribute to Titan science either alone or as part of a sustained Titan Exploration Program. As a focused mission, AVIATR as we have envisioned it would concentrate on the science that an airplane can do best: exploration of Titan’s global diversity. We focus on surface geology/hydrology and lower-atmospheric structure and dynamics. With a carefully chosen set of seven instruments—2 near-IR cameras, 1 near-IR spectrometer, a RADAR altimeter, an atmospheric structure suite, a haze sensor, and a raindrop detector—AVIATR could accomplish a significant subset of the scientific objectives of the aerial element of flagship studies. The AVIATR spacecraft stack is composed of a Space Vehicle (SV) for cruise, an Entry Vehicle (EV) for entry and descent, and the Air Vehicle (AV) to fly in Titan’s atmosphere. Using an Earth-Jupiter gravity assist trajectory delivers the spacecraft to Titan in 7.5 years, after which the AVIATR AV would operate for a 1-Earth-year nominal mission. We propose a novel ‘gravity battery’ climb-then-glide strategy to store energy for optimal use during telecommunications sessions. We would optimize our science by using the flexibility of the airplane platform, generating context data and stereo pairs by flying and banking the AV instead of using gimbaled cameras. AVIATR would climb up to 14 km altitude and descend down to 3.5 km altitude once per Earth day, allowing for repeated atmospheric structure and wind measurements all over the globe. An initial Team-X run at JPL priced the AVIATR mission at FY10 $715M based on the rules stipulated in the recent Discovery announcement of opportunity. Hence we find that a standalone Titan airplane mission can achieve important science building on Cassini’s discoveries and can likely do so within a New Frontiers budget.
An artist’s conception of AVIATR, an airplane mission to the second largest moon in our solar system: Titan. Credit: Mike Malaska 2011
Titan – Saturn’s largest moon – is a pretty fascinating place. After all, it’s the only other body in our solar system (besides Earth, of course) that has that type of atmosphere and evidence of liquid on its surface. The atmosphere on Titan is so dense that a person could strap a pair of wings on their back and soar through its skies.