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Extreme Ballooning -- on Titan

A small Oregon company is working with NASA to develop a balloon that could fly through the skies of Titan, Saturn's largest moon.
/ Source: Discovery Channel

A small Oregon company is working with NASA to develop a balloon that could fly through the skies of Titan, Saturn's largest moon.

With its thick atmosphere and lakes filled with organic materials, Titan holds particular intrigue for scientists curious about how life began on Earth and whether it exists elsewhere in the solar system. But exploring Titan will not be easy.

The moon's skies are perpetually cloudy, blocking the view from orbit. Radar and infrared instruments can provide some details of what's below, but what scientists really covet is a mission that could explore Titan's diverse terrain in detail.

A balloon, says Jeffery Hall, with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., may be just the ticket.

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"The big thing that a balloon gives you is that it moves around," Hall told Discovery News. "If you send a lander or a probe, it goes to one spot and stays there forever. We've seen that Titan has a wide variety of different kinds of terrain, so much variety that we're really motivated to send an exploration platform that can move around and can do some close-up investigations."

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Hall heads a team that works on developing balloons for a variety of planetary missions. Designing a system for Titan presents a particular challenge because it's so cold -- about minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

After years of development and testing, NASA has come up with what it considers the best material for ballooning on Titan, a sandwich of polyester film glued to a layer of polyester fibers.

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So far, the only planet beyond Earth that has been explored by balloons is Venus. The former Soviet Union dispatched a pair of balloon probes to Venus in the 1980s.

"The idea of a balloon flying, taking pictures and sending them back has a lot of public appeal and we certainly hope we can deliver the goods on that some day," Hall said.

NASA plans to test a small-scale Titan balloon at cryogenic temperatures next year. Meanwhile, Oregon-based Near Space Corp is working on systems needed to deploy and then inflate the balloon.

"Right now, we're helping to get better simulations using terrestrial materials," Near Space president Tim Lachenmeier, told Discovery News.

"The goal is to improve the computer models to better model the Titan environment."