'Robot pedalo' planned to probe Saturn's moon


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The Independent Online

Plans to send an interplanetary pedalo to Saturn's largest moon Titan have been unveiled by scientists.

The robot craft would land in one of the moon's lakes and sail around propelled by paddles.

Other versions of the probe are fitted with screws or wheels.

Titan is the nearest thing the Solar System has to Pandora, the Earth-like moon featured in the film Avatar.

Like Earth it has a thick atmosphere and large bodies of liquid on its surface - only Titan's chilly seas consist of lighter fluid chemicals instead of water.

The hydrocarbon lakes, seas and rivers cover much of the moon's northern hemisphere.

Their existence was confirmed by the European Space Agency's Huygens lander which visited Titan as part of the Cassini mission in 2005.

Huygens landed on solid ground but was designed to float for short periods.

The new plans, presented at the European Planetary Science Congress in Madrid, envisage dropping a boat-like probe in the middle of Ligeia Mare, the largest lake near Titan's north pole.

The craft would then set sail for the coast, taking scientific measurements on the way.

Scientists expect the Titan Lake In-Situ Sampling Propelled Explorer (Talise) mission to last six months to a year.

Igone Urdampilleta, from the Spanish engineering company Sener, said: "The main innovation in Talise is the propulsion system. This allows the probe to move, under control, from the landing site in the lake, to the closest shore.

"The displacement capability would achieve the obtaining of liquid and solid samples from several scientific interesting locations on Titan's surface such as the landing place, along the route towards the shore and finally at the shoreline."

Although Titan's environment is too cold for Earth-like life it is rich in biological building blocks.

The moon's atmosphere largely consists of nitrogen, like the Earth's, and contains abundant organic compounds.