This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
One day, an airplane may photograph the sand dunes, lakes, rivers and mountains of Titan, one of Saturn's moons.
Jani Radebaugh, an assistant professor of geological sciences at Brigham Young University, and some fellow scientists have published a plan to design and launch an airplane to Titan in the journal Experimental Astronomy.
Radebaugh has been studying data about Titan sent from the Cassini spacecraft since 2005. The resolution of those images is about 300 meters, which provides some information but not much detail. An airplane would be able to capture images with a resolution of mere meters.
"We could see the crest lines of dunes, tiny tributary channels and shorelines," Radebaugh said. "We would get a much better sense of geological processes that have been active on the modifications of the surface."
Titan makes a fairly ideal place for an airplane because its atmosphere has about the same pressure as Earth's, but four times the density, making it easier for the aircraft to stay aloft.
The plane would be operated by an atomic battery that would power the plane for about a year. It would be equipped with several instruments to take different readings of the surface, and it would have an antenna in its nose that would beam back the images and data to Earth.
One of the reasons Radebaugh wants to collect the data is to get more information on how the moon's geology has formed. Titan is so far from the Sun that elements that are gas on Earth are liquids there, such as methane. At this point, the working theory is that Titan has methane rain, which creates methane rivers and lakes. As it falls, it also carves the ground, which appears to be made mostly of water ice, and forms structures such as mountains and huge dunes.
"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."
The project will cost about $700 million and the plane, loaded in a rocket, will take 7½ years to get to the distant moon, which is about 890, 517,400 miles away. One of the funding hurdles the team faces is that astronomers are hesitant to send so much new funding to a moon that currently has Cassini orbiting it, she said.
However, she is hopeful scientists will reassess their position.
"With the battery technology constantly improving, we hope that will shave a couple hundred million off the price tag," she said. "Hopefully these new technologies will be deemed too good to pass up."