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Scientists Propose Sending a Fleet of Drones to Explore the Lakes of Titan

And they might reveal alien life.

We've already seen the first controlled flight on another planet, so it might be a matter of time before humans send swarms of flying machines to explore our Solar System.

In a new research paper, brought to our attention by Forbes, a team of scientists proposed doing just that. Their aim is to send a fleet of mini-drones to the liquid lakes of Saturn's largest moon, Titan, where the scientific community believes there is a chance we might discover signs of extraterrestrial life.

Sending drones to an 'explorer's utopia'

The proposed mission, dubbed POSEIDON (Titan POlar Scout/orbitEr and In situ lake lander DrONe explorer), would send a lander to Titan's surface that would then deploy either a fleet of mini-drones or an amphibious large drone. Whichever option is chosen, it would explore Titan's polar regions where it has its highest concentration of lakes and seas.

Even before the newly-proposed POSEIDON mission, the scientific community has had its sights set on exploring Saturn's celestial neighbor. In fact, NASA has already planned a mission to Titan, which is slated to reach the moon in the 2030s. The mission, called Dragonfly, will also send flying machines, or rotorcraft, to explore and potentially find signs of life.

"Titan represents an explorer's utopia," Cornell University's Alex Hayes, who is working with NASA on the Dragonfly mission, said in August. "The science questions we have for Titan are very broad because we don’t know much about what is actually going on at the surface yet."

Scientists Propose Sending a Fleet of Drones to Explore the Lakes of Titan
NASA's Dragonfly mission is slated to reach Titan in the 2030s. Source: Johns Hopkins/APL

In April this year, NASA also conducted the historic first controlled flight on Mars using a drone-like helicopter called Ingenuity. The mission showed that we possess the technology to adapt our flying machines for the thin atmospheres and harsh conditions present in distant parts of our Solar System. The capability to fly off-world provides the potential for a host of future missions focused on exploring wide areas on different planets. 

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But why turn our attention to Saturn's moon, Titan? The authors of the new paper outlining the POSEIDON proposal highlight the fact that any mission to Titan could have an "outstanding scientific impact" and that it may even provide evidence of alien life.

Searching for alien life in our Solar System

Saturn's largest moon, Titan, is home to lakes and oceans and its surface is frequently spattered by rain. Unlike on Earth though, these are all composed of liquid methane and ethane. The moon's thick atmosphere means that it is not possible to analyze and observe it in detail without an in-situ orbiter and lander.

The researchers behind the POSEIDON proposal say that, after deploying its lander, the mission's orbiter would continue to travel around Titan collecting data. At the same time, the lander could deploy a fleet of mini-drones — mono-copter cubes only a few inches in height — to analyze and image the surface of the moon, providing invaluable data back on Earth. In their paper, the researchers point out that Titan's low gravity and dense atmosphere make it ideal for the flying machines.

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The mission plan was developed for the European Space Agency (ESA), which recently launched an initiative called "Voyage 2050" calling for ideas for ambitious future missions. If it is accepted by the ESA, it would aim to launch to Titan before the moon's next northern Spring equinox in 2039, as seasonal effects on its climate will be most pronounced at this time. All going to plan, by next decade, we will have learned a lot about one of the most exciting locations in our Solar System, and potentially about the existence of extraterrestrial life.

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