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  • Writer's pictureQuinn Morley

TitanAir: Leading-Edge Liquid Collection to Enable Cutting-Edge Science

Updated: Mar 19

James Vaughan Photo
James Vaughan Photo

This Titan Flyer concept aims to "drink" in methane condensation and organic material  through a permeable section of leading edge wing skin. Capillary features on the inside of the wing will collect this ingested material and combine it into a continuous fluid stream, which can then be routed to science instruments inside the flyer. To enable intermittent low altitude flight, the flyer will land on the seas of Titan like a flying boat -- except "boat" implies water, and on Titan the lakes are made of methane. We're calling it a "flying laker."

2023 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Phase I Award Winner.

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

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

The Team for TitanAir:

The Principal Investigator for this Phase I effort is Quinn Morley, a two-time Fellow of the NIAC program and the first undergraduate Principal Investigator in the program’s history. “I’ve had a fascination with capillary effects in everyday life ever since I was a kid,” said Morley, “but what really got me was Don Pettit’s coffee cup on the International Space Station; just go on YouTube and search for ‘NASA one cup of coffee to go,’ it’ll blow your mind.” Morley brings 15 years of aerospace experience to the project, and plans to complete his undergrad at Washington State University this spring in the Mechanical Engineering program at the Olympic College Bremerton campus.

Dr. Narasimha Boddeti will serve as Co-Investigator. Dr. Boddeti is the Berry Family Assistant Professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering in the Voiland College of Engineering and Agriculture at Washington State University. He brings over 16 years of engineering expertise to the team, and enjoys challenging applications of material science in mechanical engineering, including soft robotics.

Dr. Steven Collicott is a collaborator for the capillary physics part of the project. Dr. Collicott has a distinguished career which includes working on fluid physics problems with NASA at Purdue University, where he is a Professor in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics in the College of Engineering.

Laura Forczyk, M.Sc. is the science consultant for TitanAir, and has a years-long relationship with Planet Enterprises. Forczyk is the Executive Director of Astralytical, and brings an exceptional understanding of space science–and space science communication–to the team. Her new book, Becoming Off-Worldly: Learning from Astronauts to Prepare for Your Spaceflight Journey, came out in 2022.

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.

The following story 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 (yes I haven't even graduated yet, mid-career transitions can be odd). 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. (thing 4116612 on thingiverse). 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!

[Note from future Quinn: During an attempt to reproduce this, it was determined the original material was Glad Press'n'seal, and experimentation showed that it takes 10 minutes to fill the shelf with 10 mL of water/1:200 photoflo. Wax paper was not available at the time. Alcohol with parchment paper was about two minutes, but not complete.]

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 at titanair dot fyi). 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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