Imagine a ship that could soar through the misty skies on one of the strangest worlds in our solar system, Saturn’s moon Titan, followed by an easy landing in its flammable seas made of liquid methane and other hydrocarbons.
Earlier this month, NASA awarded a small grant to a former Boeing mechanic to develop “a multi-instrument flying ship that would seamlessly transition between flying through Titan’s atmosphere and navigating its lakes, much like a seaplane.” on Earth,” according to a NASA statement.
NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program, also known as NIAC, announced its latest round of grants for phase one projects, providing $175,000 for early-stage studies of proposed technology that could support future NASA missions.
One of the 14 grants awarded went to Quinn Morley of Gig Harbor, Wash., and his company Planet Enterprises for a project called TitanAir.
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“Somehow, I took an idea inspired by a space coffee cup and a messy spill in the fridge, convinced a team of amazing people to work with me, and blended it all into a winning NIAC concept over summer break,” Morley, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at Washington State University, wrote on LinkedIn.
The spill got Morley thinking about astronaut Don Pettit’s efforts to create a microgravity-compatible cup of coffee that uses capillary action to better control the flow of liquids. For some reason, Morley began to think about how a similar action could be used on an airplane.
“I’m not sure how I was inspired to introduce fluid through the permeable skin of a wing. However, I remember thinking about the idea for a while, not knowing what to do with a rounded, fluid-filled wing.”
Eventually, the idea became a central component of TitanAir, “a relocatable lake lander” or “laker” that can land in a body of liquid and collect some of that liquid through its permeable skin for scientific study. . Perhaps no liquid in the solar system is more fascinating and worth studying than the fluids that make up Titan’s strange lakes and seas.
Titan has a thick, misty atmosphere that would be toxic to humans and is too cold for liquid water, but perfect for cooled hydrocarbons to maintain a liquid phase. The moon is thought to harbor familiar weather patterns involving rain that feeds rivers, lakes and oceans, but much of it is likely frigid and flammable.
This isn’t the first time NIAC funds have gone to explore Titan’s strange seas. A 2015 grant went to study a concept for sending a submarine to go deeper.
TitanAir is unlikely to reach the outer solar system anytime soon. The next trip in that direction isit will launch in 2027 and arrive in 2034. It includes a drone meant to explore Titan’s atmosphere, but you have no plans to take a dip or sip while you’re there.