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A Mission Ahead of its TiME?

One of the missions not selected under NASA’s Discovery Program was the Titan Mare Explorer or TiME. This mission would have seen the first “ship” cruise on an alien sea. Image Credit: The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Lockheed Martin

There was more than a little outcry over the selection of the InSight mission to Mars over two other very attractive missions when the choice was made in August of this year. One of the two missions not selected – was the Titan Mare Explorer or “TiME.” TiME would have seen a probe sail on the surface of one of the methane seas of Saturn’s moon Titan.

It would have been the first nautical exploration of an alien sea, but it was not to be – at least not yet.

The TiME mission was proposed after it was confirmed that Titan indeed contained rivers, lakes and seas consisting of liquid methane. The target was the methane lake Ligeia Mare, which is larger than Lake Superior on Earth. Ligeia has a total surface area of approximately 100,000 km2. If for some reason this wasn’t possible, a backup site had also been selected, Kraken Mare.

Missions to land on one of Titan’s lakes were also proposed under the Solar System Decadal Survey and is still being considered for the Titan-Saturn System Mission which could launch sometime in the 2020s. In 2012 a similar project was announced in Europe, the Titan Lake In-situ Sampling Propelled Explorer or “TALISE.”

Unlike the Huygens probe which landed on the Titan surface in 2005, TiME would have relayed its findings directly back to Earth. Huygens transmitted its findings to the orbiting Cassini spacecraft which then sent that information back home. Line-of-sight communication with Earth will not be possible between 2026-2035 as Earth will have dipped below the horizon at the Ligeia Mare site.

In this image one can see Titan’s north polar region, one can clearly see the hydrocarbon seas, lakes and tributaries. The blue and yellow colors have been included to highlight higher and lower elevations that were detected by Cassini’s radar. Kraken Mare can be seen in the lower left and Ligeia Mare is in the lower right. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/USGS

Why explore the lakes of Titan?

Simply put, Titan, the only moon in the solar system with an appreciable atmosphere, is like a flash-frozen young Earth. With organic compounds, hydrocarbons, possible cryovolcanoes, methane rain and other features that bear a striking resemblance to terrestrial processes – exploring Titan could provide new insights about how life got started on Earth.

The launch vehicle that would have launched TiME was an Atlas V 411 rocket. The launch date had been slated to take place in 2016. Photo Credit: Lockheed-Martin

Titan is the second-largest moon in our solar system, behind Jupiter’s Ganymede. Whereas Earth has a hydrological cycle Titan has a methanological cycle (according to Professor Brian Cox on the television show Wonders of the Solar System). However, Titan is only somewhat similar to our world. With gravity far less than Earth’s, the droplets of methane rain are much larger than rain on Earth and fall at a far slower rate, one that resembles snow. Water on Titan behaves more like stone as temperatures drop to around -180 °C.

TiME would have had Ellen Stofan, a member of the Cassini mission’s radar team, as its principal investigator. The Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) would have managed the mission. Lockheed-Martin would have built the vessel with instruments provided by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, APL and Malin Space Science Systems.

The science that would have been conducted on TiME would have been revolutionary. Scientific measurements would have begun on descent to the Moon’s surface and would have been included the following; determine the depth of a Titan sea, what chemistry is taking place there, discover Titan marine processes and study the atmosphere above the sea.

The tech that would have been employed on this mission would also have been cutting edge.

Titan’s atmosphere is thicker than Earth’s and this precluded the use of solar panels on TiME. Batteries would have only provided a few hours worth of power, so, if the mission had been given the green light, it would have been the first mission that employed the Adanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator (ASRG). This prototype system is expected to be as much as four times more efficient than current radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs).

The mission was not without its potential technical pitfalls however.

The boat would have been unpowered. It would have been at the mercy of Ligeia Mare’s currents and winds. Anyone who has toyed with a remotely-controlled boat and left it alone knows what normally happens. The boat can get stuck, immobile and goes nowhere. This was deemed to not be an issue as it was felt that TiME would have been pushed around for months by Ligeia Mare’s currents.

TiME would have launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 411 rocket in 2016 arriving at the smoggy moon in 2023. TiME was one of three missions selected under the Discovery Program receiving $3 million in May of 2011 when it was selected as a finalist. The other two missions chosen were the aforementioned InSight mission to Mars and the Comet Hopper or “CHopper” mission that would have followed a comet as it traveled throughout the solar system. NASA chose InSight in Aug. 2012. TiME was a proposal made by Proxemy Research with a cost capped out at $425 million (excluding the launch vehicle).

11 comments to A Mission Ahead of its TiME?

  • Karol

    If we could get everyone in America to donate the cost of a can of soda pop and a bag of chips, we’d be on our way. Yeah, I know. And it’s too cold to get out my sponge and bucket, and amble my boney knees out to a parking lot to hold a car wash. Who wants iced lemonade from a lemonade stand in November? I guess it will have to be wandering along the side of the road picking up empty deposit cans and bottles. Maybe I should call my elected representatives in Congress? You’re right, I’d probably have better luck with a lemonade stand in November. Geez.

  • This was a very short-sighted decision not to launch TiME. What an wonderful opportunity to gain invaluable information about Titan’s methane lakes and other surface features! The promise of detecting the possibility of life in our solar system INCLUDES Titan, Europa and other moons of Jupiter and Saturn. We are already doing excellent work with Mars (Curiosity)and will continue to do so. Let’s expand our capabilities and knowledge base, take advantage of the the line-of-sight positions and go there.

    • Karol

      Very well stated Tom, I (and many others I’ll bet) are in complete agreement with you. If you’re not busy, would you consider running for Congress in two years? If NASA received one whole penny of every federal budget dollar instead of 0.47 of a penny, imagine what could be accomplished, and imagine all of the ramifications in so many areas of a properly funded program of space exploration for America. Hey, it would be worth it just as a great morale booster to get us out of our depressive malaise (sorry, I’m still grinning about all that cheering over the landing of Curiosity) :-)

      • Leonidas

        I understand that the InSight mission was chosen because the Mars exploration program had already gained speed and momentum over the years, and nobody wanted to dismantle all the marvellous scientific and engineering teams of the Mars program (that would be really tragic indeed), but I’m still GRINDING MY TEETH over the exclusion of missions like ‘TIME’ and ‘Comet Hopper’! The U.S could have funded all three missions if it wanted to.

        And please everybody, don’t even get me started on the ‘We can’t afford it both’ nonsense! If anyone really believes that, then I feel sorry for him…

        • Karol

          Once again, you’re exactly right Leonidas! We always seem to find the necessary funding to do something that the American public wants to do. If our future success as a major player in the global economy depends upon our ability to stay at the forefront of technological innovation, does it make sense to cut funding for NASA, a major driver of that innovation? The government of Afghanistan recently told us that they don’t want our Sesame Street and that we could “go stuff our Big Bird”, thereby freeing up millions of dollars ear-marked to spread the Gospel According To Elmo to Afghan children. Now, if we can just get the President and Congress to put that money into a “TiME” account . . . . Yeah. Right. I know. I’d get a more reasoned response from the Cookie Monster.

          • Leonidas

            In my country we have a saying: ‘There isn’t a ‘I can’t do it’. There is only ‘I don’t want to do it’

            ‘When all you do is coast, eventually others will catch up and pass you by’ – Neil De Grasse Tyson

  • Karol,
    If I could sway Congress and the American taxpayers that it is in our best interest to demonstrate leadership in the scientific exploration of space, I would consider it.

  • Crowdsource

    What a great project! Could we put this on kickstarter or something?

  • Dave Huntsman

    What was not mentioned in this article was that the ASRG power source’s presence on the mission was apparently held against it; ie, it was one reason it was not selected. New technology is considered risky and therefore doesn’t fly; it also isn’t selected for later missions because it wasn’t selected for this one, etc. etc. That’s why NASA had created years ago New Millennium Program, whose specific job was to get over that chicken-and-egg problem and have a series of flights whose sole job was flight test new technologies, so that they could be selected later. The New Millennium Program was cancelled; and we find ourselves in the same anti-new technology catch-22 again.

    • Karol

      So disappointing to learn about the ASRG power source and the cancellation of the New Millennium Project, especially when we like to think of NASA as the standard bearer leading the charge in scientific and technological innovation. Perhaps the upper echelon is so “budget gun-shy” that they feared the outcry over the loss of taxpayer dollars if a multi-million dollar spacecraft failed to function, but to cancel the New Millennium Project which would have proven the ASRG seems schizophrenic at best. If NASA is forced to fearfully glance over its shoulder for the budget headsman and his axe, they are hardly going to be willing to take the risk inherent in innovation and advancement, and without a New Millennium Project … Thanks for the information Dave!

  • [...] Mare Explorer: Titan Mare Explorer or “TiME” as it was more commonly known as was another finalist in the Discovery Program along with [...]