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The great unknowns of space might soon be less unknown; various government and private space exploration companies have started projects to discover Mars, the nearest planet where life might be possible. But, it might not the only one, as possible conditions for primitive life can be found on a moon of Saturn as well: Titan.
Titan features a dense atmosphere of nitrogen and methane. It is the only other spacial body to have surface liquids (beside Earth). Beneath its surface, it possibly features a layer of ice and liquid water. Although the conditions are not perfect for earth-like life, it could form the base for lifeforms of other kinds.
The goal of this project is to design a system to search for life (or traces thereof) on the surface of Titan. As Titan is far away from earth, communication is restricted; this means the system will have to independently be able to discover the unknowns of the planet. Using AI the device will have to navigate, identify points-of-interest, and hopefully discover life on Titan.
The conditions on Titan are harsh. [...]
Since Titans distance from earth, communication is delayed by 70 to 90 minutes. This means that if the vehicle gets stuck, it will cost over an hour before that information arrives on earth, and then double it before commands to get unstuck arrives back at the device. This complicates control of the device, thus it will have to be able to navigate and discover independently, with as few human interventions as possible.
Something about Astrobiology
The device should be able to do the following:
- To safely arrive at Titan
- Move around on Titan without need of human intervention
- Identify (evidence of) lifeforms
- Communicate findings back to earth, possibly via a satellite or other external device
This paper describes GESTALT, a program used to autonomously navigate the Martian surface.
There is blind-drive, which is the simplest method to reach a goal. It speaks for itself, it is a blind drive, there is no hazard detection.
With the AutoNav, the rover detects obstacles and hazards and autonomously avoids this. The paper then goes more in-debt about AutoNav. The approach has its similarities with the Robots and AI course NetLogo assignment.
An idea for a deliverable is to try and alter/expand/improve that assignment or use it as a base to come up with a path-finding algorithm. Another idea is to chose an instrument we like, and further work on that. For example further investigate the SAM, and maybe try to improve on its size. Which now has the size of a microwave.
In space exploration, the lines between User, Society and Enterprise are often more vague than in other fields. This is because one entity can be in all three groups at once, with the main example being NASA.
NASA is a User of the satellites and spacecrafts that are in space, using them to conduct research in many different topics.
NASA is also Society, since it is a government driven and funded entity. NASA has its own administrator, but the decision making is also heavily influenced by Congress.
Lastly, NASA has a major role in Enterprise, not to make profit themselves (since they’re funded by the Government), but to fund other companies that build rockets and satellites.
So the Governmental space administrations usually fall in all three categories. Besides that, there are the companies, who usually fall in the groups User and Enterprise, and the scientists, who fall in the groups User and Society.
- Space agencies
- Governmental: NASA, ESA, JAXA, Roscosmos
- rockets: ULA, SpaceX, Boeing, Blue Origin
- satelites: JPL, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, Universities
(To be edited) Satisfying our curiosity further our understanding of
- planetary biochemistry
- formation of planets/moons
Long term: Everyone
(to be edited) Enterprise:
- Space agencies
- Governmental: NASA, ESA, JAXA, Roscosmos)
- Commercial: SpaceX, Blue Origin
To approach the project, milestones are created in hopes of setting realistic goals which can be acheived on a weekly basis. These goals will span for the entirety of the project timeline. Note, these will change throughout the project, as the type of deliverable is still not set in concrete. Once this is decided many of the milestones can be removed or ammended. Below the milestones can be found in a chronological order. These will be used later to create a project plan which can be modified throughout the project.
- Project Decision
- Project Plan
- Research (25 papers - 5 P.P.):
- Complete USEr research
- List of topics for WIKI
- RPC List
- Start looking into design solutions
- Specify Deliverable
- Prototype/deliverable development of idea
- potential deliverable programs/software
- what would be used to create deliverable/software.
- Update project plan for prototype/deliverable
- Additional research (if necissary)
- Begin developping prototype
- Addapt WIKI page with new information
- Run primary test on prototype
- Fix any issues with prototype and further develop it
- Complete Prototype
- Test Prototype deliverable
- Final testing of deliverable
- Fill in missing information from WIKI
- Finalize WIKI
- Get to Titan, the device must be able to reach Titan.
- Durability, the materials the device is made of must be able to sustain the environment, meaning it should not erode quickly or react chemically with Titan's atmosphere or surface.
- Survivable, the device should be able to handle temperatures as low as 90K, and be able to deal with winds of up to 34m/s (122km/h)
- Longevity, there must be an energy source on the device that enables the device to collect sufficient data.
- Autonomy, with light having to travel 60 to 90 minutes from Earth to Titan the device must be able to operate (partly) autonomously since it cannot be directly controlled from earth due to the massive 'input lag' caused by the distance between Earth and Titan.
- Consistent communication, the device should be able to communicate in a consistent format with Earth.
- Navigation, the device should be able to navigate Titan without getting itself stuck.
- Ethical treatment, when life is encountered the device should be able to recognize this and act accordingly.
- Flexible ways of travel, the device should be able to travel across both land and lakes/rivers and should be able to traverse canyons as well.
- Redundancy, when vital components stop working, it should have redundant backup parts such that it is able to function again afterwards.
- Simulation, the device should have a proper model to simulate the device's behavior on Earth for verification.
- Obtaining data, the device should be able to obtain data via camera, infrared, and XXX(?).
- In case of rover: Geo-locate, the device should be able to identify its location on the surface.
- In case of Satellite: Orbital-location, the device should be able to identify its current position with reference to its orbit.
- Use ready data: data obtained from the device should be formatted in a way that it is ready for use. E.g. maps should be directly renderable in GIS.
- Constant data flow, such that information passes to and from the device continuously.
- sustainability, the material used should have the potential of being recovered, and if not, should be safe to leave on titan without causing damage to the enviroment, or when in orbit would not create space debris.
- Universal Program, the code written for the operation of the device (in all cases) should not restrict the availability of potential imput from other software, and should allow a large range of possible contribution.
- Maximum size, the device must fit into the rocket so it can be transported.
- Maximum weight, the device cannot weigh more than (to be determined) in order for the rocket to launch properly.
- Cost/Realizability, the device/mission has to be approved by a governmental Space Agency (probably NASA), to get funding.
Logbook and Structure:
For a thoroughly catalogued timetable of the work contributed by team members, the Logbook Group 5 is used.
The hours mentioned within this logbook correspond to the Project Plan Adaptable Structure, where-in a continuously modified to-do list is given, as well as the priority of each task, and how far developped these tasks are.
Conditions of Life
To be able to 'find life', the priliminary problem is determining how this can be done. Therefore, before describing how we can find life on Titan, an investigation into what signs of life are has to be made. The following subsection is dedicated to this, as well as elaborating on the different forms of life. Once this has been thoroughly covered, the instruments used to do this can be further explained.
NASA’s curiosity rover is equipped with several cameras and sensors. Generally speaking they consist of the following:
- Radiation Detectors
- Environmental sensors
- Atmospheric sensors
The cameras are used for visualization and orientation during descent and exploration.
- Mahli – microscopic imaging – Identify minerals in a rock or debris->Indication of life
- Mardi - provides view during descent for better exploration path planning – For NASA data is send back to earth after landing so the so-called Earthbound planners can plan the route for the rover. This could be an interesting part to further look into as this could possibly be extended with some AI-features. Like recognizing patterns and planning the route itself.
Spectrometers are commonly used in chemical analysis. These devices can separate matter by their mass for example.
- APXS – radiation detection for types of elements
- ChemCam – uses laser and spectrometer to vaporize and analyze the chemicals
- CheMin – spectrometer
SAM (sample analysis)
- Gas chromatograph
- Mass spectrometer
- Tunable Laser Spectrometer
- RAD – radiation assessment detector – for future human exploration
- DAN – detection subsurface water
- REMS – weather station
- MEDLI – collect engineering data during descent into atmosphere – material study
Conclusions that can be drawn from this, is that there are different sensors for different end-goals. Observation, navigation, material study via various ways(taking samples or collecting data on radiation), a weather station and collecting data entering the atmosphere. Keep in mind this is only from NASA’s Curiosity rover. NASA’s perseverance rover is an upgraded version with solar-powered drone, which I have not looked into much deeper.
From what we have discussed so far, it is best to focus our interest in the material study and navigation.
Further investigation into Ingenuity (the mars helicopter)
Because Ingenuity is only built to test if a 'drone' of sorts can fly on Mars, it does not have the same collection of sensors and cameras as the curiosity rover or preservance. That being said, there is an extremely high level of engineering dedicated to the flight of Ingenuity, which could be taken into account when considering our own hardware end product. Whilst Ingenuity is the pinacle of technological advancements (considering it is the first UAV to fly on Mars), it is still quite rudementary with the following Hardware:
- Body: 0.136 m x 0.195m x 0.163m (cubic shape)
- Landing 'legs' 0.384 m (length)
- Rotor Diameter: 1.2m
- Height: 0.49 m
- Landing mass: 1.8 kg with 273 g tatal mass of batteries
- Power output: 350 W
Further investigation into Ingenuity Gives the following flight characteristics:
- Rotor speed: 2400 rpm
- Blade tip speed: <0.7 mach
- Operation time: 1-5 flights within 30 sols
- Flight time: Max. 120 seconds per flight.
- Maximum flight range: 600 m
- Maximum radio range: 1000 m
- Maximum planned attitude: 10 m
- Maximum speed:
- Horizontal: 10 m/s
- Vertical: 3 m/s
- Battery capacity: 35-40 Wh
From these fundemental statistics of the Ingenuity copter, we can conclude the following. Whilst this is an impressive feat to achieve (flight on Mars of a UAV), it is not nearly sufficient for what we would be planning and therefore several adaptations would need to be made. Most notably, as greater flight times would be expected (with greater max. alttitude & range), a greater radio communication range would be required. For any of this to be implemented, greater dimensions would be required. This also means that greater batteries would be needed, and much larger rotor speeds would be almost manditory. Therefore, further investigation into how this can be done needs to be made.
In hopes of satisfying the USEr, we want to focus on key aspects of the project, most notably the deliverable. This can be done by taking several assumptions, most notably the spacecraft used, the size of the payload, the weight of the payload and any other details which would prove relvant to the problem, but irrelevant to the final deliverable. In hopes of doing this, the assumptions made will be further elaborated here.
In order to reach Titan's orbit, a sufficiently large exit velocity is required (to escape Earth's gravitational pull). To do this, some rudimentary calculations are needed. This will broken down into several categories starting with computing the required escape velocity. After this we will determine the power output required to do so, and how much fuel this would consume. Lastly, we will select a rocket which can meet all of these conditions. Using this information, we use the payload capsule volume available to select a deliverable which suits these dimensions.
The escape velocity can be computed with the following equation:
State of the Art:
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Test 1 Test 2. Test 3.
- Nature (magazine) on Lakes On Titan - link
- Nature (journal) on Lakes On Titan - link
- On Terrain features on a part of Titan - link
- On extremophiles in astrobilogy - link
- On finding evidence of fossilized bacteria (on earth) - link
- Image based species identification - link
- On rover-to-orbiter communication - link
- DragonFly mission concept - link
- Space exploration for life - link
- The (progress of) development of autonomy technologies required to explore Titan - link
- A page containing all info published by NASA about the Cassini mission - link
- A page containing loads of information about Titan itself published by NASA - link
- Geological map of Titan published by NASA - link
- Impervious surface mapping - link
- Achievements in space robotics - link
- Dragonfly mission page - link
- Gravity assisted space travel - link
- The Oberth effect - link
- NASA Scientists Discover ‘Weird’ Molecule in Titan’s Atmosphere - link
- Pictures of Saturn and Titan - link
- Modular Software for an Autonomous Space Rover - link
- Real time map building - link
- ESA Cassini-Huygens page - link
- DragonFly concept paper - link
- NASA Curiosity rover - link
- MARDI link
- NASA perseverance rover link
- Global path planning on Mars link
- Ingenuity Copter 
- Ingenuity Copter (Nasa) 
- Alternate ice planets 
- Exoplanet investigations 
- Preservence rover