A mission to investigate Titan's methane lakes

Titan has recently become a focus of increased interest. Cassini's discoveries have only heightened curiosity in the solar system's second-largest moon. One planned mission, the Dragonfly drone, which NASA expects to launch in the mid-2030s, has already been sparked by liquid on its surface. Now, scores of scientists have signed on to a proposal to ESA for a similar expedition. This one would be called POSEIDON, and it would specialize in exploring Titan's methane lakes.

However, neither mission will be the first to visit Titan's surface. Huygens, a lander launched with the Cassini mission, holds this distinction. Unfortunately, because of the relatively restricted technology of a probe launched in the late 1990s, it could only relay data back from the surface for about an hour and a half.

Dragonfly and POSEIDON both have substantially longer mission timetables in the works. POSEIDON would be made up of at least two distinct vehicles. One orbiter to provide constant, close surveillance of the moon, and at least one lander to collect both atmospheric and hydrological data from the lakes would be its major objective. Another possibility is to use a swarm of landers to conduct numerous data-gathering missions at the same time, but this would necessitate major breakthroughs in swarm technology, which could be on the horizon before the missions' launch date.

Whatever probe configuration it finishes up with, POSEIDON's mission aims for its time on the veiled moon will be to comprehend its atmosphere, geology, and habitability. At this early level of development, the mission payload is unknown, however, many instruments could provide answers to a number of topics.

A more powerful mass spectrometer was one of the instruments highlighted by the team. Cassini's mass spectrometer reached its limits when it discovered massive ions in the upper atmosphere, hence the majority of the moon's composition is unknown. More of that piece would be revealed with a more powerful instrument. Because Titan has seasons, a longer mission would enable scientists to collect atmospheric data for an entire season, providing greater knowledge on Titan's dynamic changes.

The atmosphere, however, obscures the moon's surface, making it difficult to view Titan's geology from Earth. Having a nearby orbiter would thus provide numerous benefits in knowing the moon's nature. A ground-penetrating radar linked to an orbiter is the most important equipment for understanding Titan's geology, which is the second mission goal. On Earth, the technology is used to map utility lines or structural concrete footers, whilst in space research, it aids scientists in identifying possible regions of interest.

Some of those sites of interest may be hiding something even more intriguing in their midst. Titan, with its standing liquid lakes, is one of the few places in the solar system that could conceivably be livable. There is a lot that is unknown about its ability to house something as complex as a biosphere, and POSEIDON aims to begin filling in those gaps.

The easiest method to fill in the blanks is to obtain a direct sample from Titan's surface. This is best accomplished using a drone equipped with a spectrometer similar to those used for atmospheric investigations and dubbed CosmOrbitrap in the white paper. A chiral gas chromatograph could be used to collect further evidence for life, such as chirality.

Whatever the final payload and design, there is still a long way to go before anything takes off. This is also not the first time that such a mission has been suggested to ESA. It has been floating around the agency in some form since the early 2000s. However, with certain deadlines approaching, the project may soon reach a tipping point.

Currently, the project plan is for a launch in the early 2030s, with the spacecraft arriving on Titan before the northern hemisphere's spring equinox on 22 January 2039. Dragonfly, NASA's drone mission to Titan, would most likely arrive somewhat earlier and begin sending critical data to mission planners prior to their final approach.

While the POSEIDON orbiter will remain in orbit around the planet, the lander will most likely land in the northern hemisphere near a large network of lakes. Dragonfly, which will be more focused on the equatorial regions, will collect data from a totally different climatic, and maybe geologic, perspective.

All of this planning and work will be for naught if the project is not funded. The white paper was produced in response to one of the ESA Voyage 2050 mission themes, which was specified as moons of big planets. Titan is one of the most intriguing, but it will be a long time before any ESA mission touches down or orbits the moon.

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