Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Titan Saturn System Mission

There was another five year anniversary this last week -- on Christmas Eve, 2004, the Huygens lander separated from Cassini and went on to land on the surface of Titan three weeks later. This recent Cassini image shows the glint of sunlight due to specular reflection from what is almost certainly a liquid on the surface of Titan, in the Kraken Mare region in the northern hemisphere. At the temperature and pressure on Titan's surface, the liquid is a hydrocarbon compound, probably methane.

In 2009, ESA and NASA merged their outer planets exploration concepts to move forward with a cooperative exploration venture. One of these, the Titan Saturn System Mission (TSSM) was to be a next generation successor to Cassini-Huygens. The mission would comprise three spacecraft -- the first being an American orbiter whose main focus would be on Enceladus and Titan, but also able to observe Saturn, the ring system, and the other moons. Along with the orbiter, two European Titan probes would be deployed: a balloon to be placed in the atmosphere, carrying an instrument package (presumably including cameras); and a surface probe whose objective would be to splashdown onto one of the liquid methane seas, probabaly Kraken Mare.

NASA and ESA collectively decided that the Jupiter/Europa mission had higher priority, due to higher technical feasibility. However, TSSM is ranked quite high in scientific importance, and work will move forward. Based on arrival at Saturn in the late 2020's, I'll be in my seventies by the time the first data comes back.

Note -- According to the Secret Star Trek History of the World, sometime after the 1960s, likely best guess in the 2005 to 2015 timeframe, a manned deep space expedition was sent to Saturn. The mission was led by Colonel Shawn Jeffrey Christopher, son of John Christopher, who in the latter half of the 1960s was a USAF Captain assigned to Omaha Air Force base. Unfortunately, our reality appears to have diverged substantially, although one can still see events in the timestream like the TSSM proposal that reflect the other reality. TSSM is a highly ambitious mission, but it is nowhere close to the level of complexity (and expense) required for a small group of astronauts to be sent to Saturn.

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