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  • Writer's pictureQuinn Morley

TitanAir: Searching for Life in a Raindrop on Another Planet

Updated: Feb 25

James Vaughan Photo
James Vaughan Photo

Anyone who has ever flown on a rainy day is familiar with the way raindrops dance on the windows of an airplane in flight. In fact, boundary layer effects mean that even when flying at 500 miles an hour, liquid slides over the skin of an airplane at a leisurely pace. What if the skin of an airplane could “drink” in this rainwater and analyze it with science instruments? What if that rain was made of methane, and from another planet?

This Titan flyer concept aims to do just that, with the methane rain on Saturn's moon Titan. Rain and organic material can be absorbed through a permeable section of the airplane's skin. Capillary features on the inside of the skin will collect this ingested material and combine it into a continuous fluid stream, which can then be routed to science instruments. TitanAir will land on the lakes of Titan like a flying boat, where it will trickle-charge its batteries, making it a "relocatable lake lander," or "laker" for short.

TitanAir NIAC Phase I Final Report:

TitanAir - Leading-Edge Liquid Collection to Enable Cutting-Edge Science
Download PDF • 20.11MB

2023 NIAC Symposium Presentation:

2023 NIAC Symposium Q&A Session:

Deleted Scenes from Symposium Presentation (capillary animations/airplane details):

Planetary Radio interview with Quinn (interview starts at 12:27):

WSU Interview with Quinn about Borebots, TitanAir, and more:

Short video from 7/17 kite experiment flight at Kopachuck State Park in WA:

Old Zoom Presentation (NIAC Orientation): here. Slides: pdf and pptx.

Read the original 2022 white paper here. Press release here - 1/9/23.

The following story from Quinn is copied from this LinkedIn post:

Somehow I took an idea inspired by a space coffee cup and a messy spill in the refrigerator, convinced a team of amazing people to work with me, and mixed it all into a winning NIAC concept over summer break. As Dr. Collicott (Collaborator on this project) likes to say "most people are unaware of capillary effects and go through their lives just fine," but I am glad that I'm not one of those people.

Before the pandemic a friend of mine "dared" me to find a way to pour costco milk without making a mess (especially a way for kids to do it). I made a spout that screws on to the jug and uses a capillary gradient to pull the last drop of milk back up the spout and into the jug ( I never went back to this project because life (and a pandemic, and a career transition) got in the way. But I was paying attention when a cranberry juice leak attracted my wife's attention. After she cleaned everything up, she put wax paper down on the fridge shelves. I was perplexed. I personally think glass refrigerator shelves are a really top-notch invention and I don't think I could go back to the wire racks I grew up with. But wax paper? My instinct was that it would make things worse. Turns out I was right: perusing google scholar, I stumbled upon this in an abstract, "We report experimental work on capillary rise of a liquid in a cell formed by parallel plates, one of which is flexible ... allows the liquid to rise virtually without limit between the plates" (Cambau, 2011). My wife found a way to evenly distribute a spill to an entire shelf in just a few seconds! [Minutes, actually -QM]

I'm not sure how I was inspired to bring liquid in through a permeable wing skin. I remember dwelling on the idea for awhile though, not knowing what to do with a wing bullnose full of liquid. Eventually I imagined an array of grooves with capillary gradients, like the milk jug pour spout (which was inspired by astronaut Don Pettit's coffee cup which he built on the ISS, later designed for serious production and use by Dr. Mark Weislogel, who added the gradient feature that Pettit was perhaps creating with his hands by squeezing the cup). Such an array is seen in Fig. 9 of our white paper (available above). Ultimately my mind came back to the experience with the refrigerator, and now I see a flexible membrane liner on the interior of the permeable wing skin (and the accompanying "limitless capillary rise") as a way to exert positive control over such an ingestion system by making the flexible liner part of an inflatable bladder, so it can be moved from one configuration to another to meet demands of mission operators. Titan is such an exciting place to explore, and I'm so grateful to have experienced the synthesis of such an amazing concept.

The team for TitanAir: Dr. Narasimha Boddeti is the Co-Investigator, and will be overseeing the portion of the investigation to be conducted at Washington State University. This concept intersects Dr. Boddeti's experience and research in several key ways, including the difficult task of architecting materials like a flexible bladder for use at extreme cryogenic temperatures, possibly even an inflatable wing that can be morphed like a soft-robotic actuator.

Dr. Steven Collicott is a Collaborator on this project and will be advising us along the way, building on his vast experience with fluid physics in low- and zero-g environments. I remember how genuinely excited he was hearing me talk about my experiences with capillary effects at home. I learned more about capillary effects from that one phone call than in all my years of college. Thanks, Dr. Collicott! We are excited to work with you.

Laura Seward Forczyk, the Executive Director at Astralytical, is our science and science communication consultant. Laura has been involved with this project from the beginning, helping me outline my ideas during the creation of the intimidating "NIAC 3-pager," one of the hardest papers to write. Her kind words about me are as difficult to accept as some of her harsh criticism in those proposal reviews!! 😂 Thanks, Laura! You always keep me thinking and growing.

Dr. Peter Buhler will serve as a consultant on Titan's low atmospheric processes, leveraging his extensive expertise in planetary atmospheric processes on Mars and Pluto. I've been lucky enough to talk with Dr. Buhler at length about the Mars SPLD and how deeply it is intertwined with Mars' obliquity cycles, and he was the first person I thought of when I started to see all of the unknowns with the complex organic flux in the lower atmosphere on Titan.

I'm so excited to have the opportunity to work with such an amazing group of people on such a unique concept -- no other proposed mission concept has targeted all three of the possible near-surface harbors of life on Titan (the atmosphere, the lakes, and the surface/shorelines) like this one. I'd also like to thank the NASA Space Technology Mission Directorate for the opportunity. NIAC is truly an amazing and inspiring program.

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