Should We Send Humans to Titan?

Universe Today recently explored the potential of sending humans to Jupiters icy moon, Europa, and the planet Venus, despite their respective harsh environments. While human missions to these strange worlds may be possible in the future, what about farther out in the solar system to worlds with less harsh surface conditions, though still inhospitable to human life? Here, we explore whether Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, could be a viable location to send humans to in the future. Titan lacks the searing temperatures and crushing pressure of Venus along with the intense radiation experienced by Europa. So, should we send people to Titan?

Yes! Dr. Jason Barnes, who is a Professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Idaho, said happily Universe Today. Titan is the second safest place in the solar system after Earth. It is shielded from radiation, pressure, and has great science to gain through crew exploration.

In addition to his academic duties, Dr. Barnes is also the Deputy Principal Investigator for NASA’s upcoming Dragonfly mission, which is a rotorcraft designed to explore Titans prebiotic chemistry and liquid methane lakes and oceans, with Titans atmosphere of 95 percent nitrogen and 5 percent methane. Powered by a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG) that currently powers NASAs Curiosity and Perseverance rovers, Dragonfly will carry a suite of instruments to help determine the habitability potential for Titan, which, in addition to Saturn’s largest moon, the second largest moon in the solar system is Jupiter’s largest moon, Ganymede.

Artists’ rendition of NASA’s Dragonfly exploring the surface of Titans. (Credit: NASA)

While Dragonfly will conduct the deepest exploration of Titan’s surface, it will not be the first spacecraft to land on Titan’s surface, as that honor goes to the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe, which landed on Titan’s surface in January 2005 and sent the data. for approximately 90 minutes after touchdown before its batteries ran out. In addition, Titan has been closely studied by NASAs Cassini spacecraft at various times throughout its mission between 2004 and 2017. But with all this science these robotic explorers have done, what more science What can a human mission to Titan do compared to a robotic mission?

Like Mars, human boots on earth can do more science exploration faster than robots, Dr. Barnes said Universe Today. In addition, if life or prebiotic chemistry is found on Titan, people at the site can more safely study such life without the risk of retrograde contamination on Earth. progress outward into the solar system.

In terms of an orbital versus a surface mission for humans to Titan, Dr. Barnes spoke Universe Today, orbital missions with humans do not make sense for science. Robotic orbiters do a good job, and our experience shows that human remote sensing does not offer any advantages to robots. But a long-term surface mission with a base and moving surface could open up a whole world of science.

This world of science includes the closest investigation of Titans prebiotic chemistry, biochemistry, and organic chemistry, along with how Titans atmosphere and oceans and lakes of liquid methane can influence those chemical reactions for short and long term. However, living on top of the Titans also comes with many challenges, as well. While Titan is well protected from harmful solar radiation, its surface is both unbearably cold and extremely dark, as the surface temperature has been measured at -179.2 degrees Celsius (-290.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and Titans surface estimated to receive only 0.1 percent of the sunlight that Earth receives. However, how else could this world of science present more challenges to human explorers on top of the Titans?

The challenges above could be that the organic molecules that make Titan so interesting could prove carcinogenic to a crew if pains are not taken to prevent it from entering the habitat, said Dr . Barnes. Universe Today. Another challenge is generating power there – you need to bring a nuclear reactor with you, because there is no indigenous way to generate the power needed to drive the exploration crew.

In addition to the challenges of living on the surface of the Titans, there is also the concern of the distance and travel time to the Saturnian system from Earth, as many missions have taken at least several years to reach the Saturnian system. , even if they took a direct route. For example, the NASA Pioneer 11 spacecraft was launched in 1973 and took six and a half years to reach Saturn after flying by Jupiter. Just a few years later, NASA’s Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft were launched in 1977 and needed three years and two months and four years, respectively, to reach Saturn after they performed flybys of Jupiter. . While NASA’s Cassini mission conducted the deepest investigation of Saturn and its many moons, the spacecraft still needed six years and nine months to reach Saturn after performing two gravity assists at Venus, one on Earth, and one on Jupiter.

Currently, the fastest spacecraft to reach Saturn is NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which takes just two years and four months to reach the ringed planet on its direct trajectory to Pluto. So, even if a human mission took a direct route to Titan, it would still take at least two years to get there. Therefore, this long travel time could interfere with any resupply or rescue operation to Titan for a human mission.

The travel time would be so long that any such expedition would have to be a huge undertaking, said Dr. Barnes Universe Today. Although astronauts are safe on Titan’s surface from radiation, they can be damaged from solar storms during the journey, at least while inside the solar system. They are so far from home that there is no possibility of survival if their systems fail, so many backups should be carried.

Are we going to send a man to Titan? Can we learn more science from a robotic mission like Dragonfly, and what can such a mission teach us about living and working so far from Earth? Only time will tell, and this is why we are science!

As always, keep doing science and keep looking up!

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