HomeNews & MediaFeatured StoriesSailing Alien Seas: NASA Picks APL-Managed Titan Mission for Discovery Program Development 

June 9, 2011

Sailing Alien Seas: NASA Picks APL-Managed Titan Mission for Discovery Program Development

Titan Mission
Artist's rendering of the TiME capsule

APL aims to take the helm of the first sea voyage beyond Earth’s shores. The Titan Mare Explorer (TiME), an APL-managed project in the running to be NASA’s next Discovery-class mission, would perform the first direct inspection of a marine environment beyond Earth by sailing across a methane-ethane sea on Saturn’s cloudy and complex moon Titan.

TiME, led by principal investigator Ellen Stofan of Proxemy Research Inc., was one of three Discovery finalists selected by NASA last month. Also picked were a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory lander that would study the Martian interior, and a NASA Goddard Space Flight Center project to land on a comet multiple times and observe its interaction with the Sun. (APL also has a role on that mission team, to provide a high-resolution telescopic camera for the “Comet Hopper” spacecraft.)

Chosen from 28 full-mission proposals submitted to NASA last summer, each of the three investigation teams receives $3 million to develop a detailed concept study. Next year, NASA will pick one mission to develop for launch, cost-capped at $425 million.

“It’s ‘common knowledge’ that outer-planets missions are billion-dollar operations, but our team proposed a lander on Titan in the low-cost Discovery mission series,” says Space Department Head John Sommerer. “Coming off the success of both the MESSENGER mission to Mercury and the New Horizons mission now on its way to Pluto, it’s clear that APL has met the challenge to think differently.”

While APL would manage the overall project, Lockheed Martin would build the TiME capsule, with scientific instruments provided by APL, NASA Goddard, and Malin Space Science Systems. TiME would launch in 2016 and reach Titan in 2023, parachuting onto the moon’s second-largest and best-mapped northern sea, Ligeia Mare.

For 3 months, the capsule would drift along the waves, studying the composition and behavior of the sea and its interaction with Titan’s weather and climate. TiME would also seek evidence of the complex organic chemistry that may be active on Titan today and that may be similar to processes that led to the development of life on the early Earth.

“These are disciplines that, to this point, have been strictly Earth science,” says the Space Department’s Ralph Lorenz, TiME project scientist. “How are heat and moisture exchanged between the ocean surface and atmosphere? How are waves generated? We have an opportunity to explore these processes in a completely different, alien environment.”

Also slated for science team membership is the Space Department’s Zibi Turtle. Civilian Space Business Area Executive Kurt Lindstrom says the Laboratory is assembling an experienced management, scientific, and engineering team to produce the mission proposal.

APL led the first Discovery-class mission, NEAR, which in 2000–2001 became the first spacecraft to orbit and land on an asteroid. The Laboratory also leads the program’s latest success, MESSENGER, which began a yearlong orbit of the planet Mercury in March.

In a statement, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) saluted the Discovery finalists from Maryland. “These grants are well-deserved,” says Mikulski, chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee for Commerce, Justice, and Science, which funds NASA. “I am so proud of our Maryland scientists who are doing the kind of cutting-edge research that could change our understanding of space.”