A robot ship could soon be sailing across the massive bodies of liquid that dot the arctic region of Titan, Saturn's moon. Titan has huge lakes, but they're made up of ethane, methane and propane.
In the plans drafted by geologist Ellen Stofan, with funding from NASA, a capsule would splash down in one of these northern lakes — probably Ligeia Mare or Kraken Mare — with a "Lake Lander," known as the Titan Mare Explorer (or TiME for short.) Because solar power is in short supply in Titan's atmosphere, which is full of methane rain and far from the Sun, TiME would use a new kind of nuclear power cell known as the Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator (ASRG). The lander wouldn't need sails to zoom along, pushed by Titan's nitrogen winds, but it would have a crow's nest supporting a camera, to gain a better vantage point.
Titan's average temperatures of -292 Fahrenheit are enough to keep those methane/ethane/propane seas liquid. Stofan told Space.Com:
It's very cold, but the technological challenges aren't as big as you might think. Landing in liquid is a lot more forgiving than on land.
Now that Stofan has funding to draw up her plans, she is crafting a proposal for NASA to fund the mission under its Discovery program — and if that gets approved, our nuclear windjammer could explore Titan's seas as soon as 2022. Strohan's report (PDF) is here. [Space.com and The Register]