by Des Ryan
Sailing could be a vibrant part of the future of space exploration and it's not only because of Ikaros, the Japanese spacecraft sailing through space using electric photons as wind since 2010. At NASA there's a plan hatching to sail on seas of liquid methane and ethane on Saturn's largest moon, Titan.
Ligeia Mare on Titan - size comparison with Lake Superior - plenty large enough to sail on
Paul Rogers for Forbes reports that the plan is to send a 'Titan Mare Explorer', cutely called 'TiME', to parachute into Lake Ligeia in Titan's northern hemisphere.
The plan for Titan Mare Explorer (TiME), proposed by a team led by Dr Stofan before she became chief scientist, is to parachute it into Lake Ligeia on the moon’s northern hemisphere.
NASA's chief scientist, Dr Ellen Stofan, made the proposal, but it has so far lost out to InSight Mars Lander, due to launch in 2016, which is designed to investigate the core of the Red Planet, including its composition, temperature and seismic activity.
But according to Rogers the idea is far from dead, and proponents hope it will receive funding in NASA’s future mission plans. Dr Stofan said she was 'hopeful'.
The American space agency is currently looking for missions to launch in 2021 and beyond.
Ralph Lorenz of Johns Hopkins University, who has taken over as head of the TiME project, said: 'It is essentially a drifting buoy, much like those used in terrestrial oceanography. The dominant movement is due to the wind so you can think of it as sailing.'
Not that you could think of it as a comfortable afternoon sail, as the temperature would be around -180C (-290F).
The mission is designed to last three months, taking measurements in the target lake including looking for signs of life. TiME would not be able to search for such buried life, but it might be able to find signs of non-water-based life in the surface lakes.
One point in Titan’s favour as a home for such aliens is its thick, complex atmosphere is not unlike those on Earth before life arose here. Some scientists think it could provide precursors of life such as amino acids and chemicals that could be turned into energy.
Instead of oxygen, any creatures living on the surface of the moon would likely breathe hydrogen and combine it with acetylene instead of glucose, exhaling methane instead of carbon dioxide.