01/04/2012 02:35 pm ET Updated Jan 05, 2012

AVIATR Probe: Proposed Mission To Saturn's Moon Titan Features Atmosphere Surfing Plane

AVIATR (Aerial Vehicle for In-situ and Airborne Titan Reconnaissance) is a proposed exploration mission that could fly the skies of Saturn's moon Titan.

The AVIATR drone would learn more about the moon's geography and atmosphere and was explained in an online article published in Experimental Astronomy by Dr. Jason W. Barnes of the University of Idaho.

AVIATR consists of three vehicles: a space travel vehicle, an entry and descent vehicle, and an atmosphere surfing long-distance style plane.
Why go to Titan and spend an estimated $715 million to do it Barnes' way? Titan is actually one of the most Earth-like worlds we've found. Titan has a "substantial, active atmosphere and complex, Earth-like processes that shape its surface." A surface that is chiseled by rains and ground flows of liquid ethane and methane. As Earth-like as Titan is, it is still an alien world which is sure to yield more stunning surprises.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn in 2004 and on January 14, 2005, it dropped the Huygens probe through Titan's atmosphere for the first landing on a body in the outer solar system. The Huygens probe sent back incredible images from its descent through the atmosphere and of the surrounding landscape once it hit the ground.

One of AVIATR's science missions will be to explore parts of Titan not seen by Cassini-Huygen like Titan's "blandlands". Another would be to look for signs of "prebiotic molecules and evidence for astrobiological activitys" and to scope out potential landing sites of interest for future missions to Titan.

Why not use a balloon as some other potential missions have proposed? According to Barnes, one of the reasons is that "Heavier-than-air flight on Titan is easier than anywhere else in the solar system. With over 4 times more air and 7 times less gravity than Earth, flight on Titan is 28 times easier than it is here" and the "airplane solution has a lower programmatic and comparable operational risk posture to a balloon" as well.

It's thrilling to think about a drone soaring through Titan's skies, but it likely isn't going to happen any time soon as NASA has Europa in its sights for first priority missions.

For more detailed information about the proposed mission, read the full article here.