NASA funding ideas for a space seaplane, other innovations

NASA is funding a concept for a space seaplane that could investigate the chemistry of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.

The TitanAir project from Planet Enterprises’ Quinn Morley could both soar through Titan’s nitrogen-and-methane atmosphere and navigate its oceans. 

“Flying on Titan would be relatively easy thanks to its low gravity and thick atmosphere. Morley conceived a flying, heavily instrumented boat that would seamlessly transition between soaring through Titan’s atmosphere and sailing its lakes, much like a seaplane on Earth,” NASA said, noting that all NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) studies are not considered official agency missions. 

The NIAC program, within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, funds early-stage studies to evaluate technologies that could support future missions, with the latest round of awards amounting to $175,000 in grants to 14 visionaries. 

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Artist’s depiction of TitanAir: Leading-Edge Liquid Collection to Enable Cutting-Edge Science
(James Vaughan Photo-Illustration)

With a liquid ingestion system, the Titan Flyer concept aims to “drink” in methane condensation and organic material using a permeable section of the 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,” Morley explained in a blog post. “We’re calling it a ‘flying laker.’”

According to a release from the Gig Harbor, Washington-based company, once the liquid is inside the wing, it would be collected into a continuous fluid stream using several competing methods. 

The NASA Headquarters sign stands on June 26, 2020, in Washington, D.C. 

The NASA Headquarters sign stands on June 26, 2020, in Washington, D.C. 
((Photo by Joshua Roberts/Getty Images))

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One of those methods uses biomimicry of water-collecting cacti on Earth, another utilizes a flexible membrane and a third uses channels etched into the skin. 

After it is analyzed with scientific instruments, the data is transmitted back to Earth between flights.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson speaks prior to the launch of an Atlas V rocket carrying Boeing's CST-100 Starliner capsule to the International Space Station in a do-over test flight at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on July 29, 2021. 

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson speaks prior to the launch of an Atlas V rocket carrying Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner capsule to the International Space Station in a do-over test flight at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on July 29, 2021. 
(REUTERS/Joe Skipper/File Photo)

“These initial Phase I NIAC studies help NASA determine whether these futuristic ideas could set the stage for future space exploration capabilities and enable amazing new missions,” Michael LaPointe, program executive for NIAC at NASA Headquarters, said in a statement.

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“NASA dares to make the impossible possible. That’s only achievable because of the innovators, thinkers, and doers who are helping us imagine and prepare for the future of space exploration,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson noted. “The NIAC program helps give these forward-thinking scientists and engineers the tools and support they need to spur technology that will enable future NASA missions.”

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