Original Article

Experimental Astronomy

, Volume 33, Issue 1, pp 55-127

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

AVIATR—Aerial Vehicle for In-situ and Airborne Titan Reconnaissance

A Titan airplane mission concept
  • Jason W. BarnesAffiliated withUniversity of Idaho Email author 
  • , Lawrence LemkeAffiliated withNASA Ames Research Center
  • , Rick FochAffiliated withNaval Research Laboratory
  • , Christopher P. McKayAffiliated withNASA Ames Research Center
  • , Ross A. BeyerAffiliated withNASA Ames Research CenterCarl Sagan Center at the SETI Institute
  • , Jani RadebaughAffiliated withBrigham Young University
  • , David H. AtkinsonAffiliated withUniversity of Idaho
  • , Ralph D. LorenzAffiliated withJohns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
  • , Stéphane Le MouélicAffiliated withLaboratoire de Planétologie et Géodynamique, CNRS, UMR6112, Université de Nantes
    • , Sebastien RodriguezAffiliated withUniversité de Paris Diderot
    • , Jay GundlachAffiliated withAurora Flight Sciences
    • , Francesco GianniniAffiliated withAurora Flight Sciences
    • , Sean BainAffiliated withNaval Research Laboratory
    • , F. Michael FlasarAffiliated withNASA Goddard Space Flight Center
    • , Terry HurfordAffiliated withNASA/GSFC
    • , Carrie M. AndersonAffiliated withNASA/GSFC
    • , Jon MerrisonAffiliated withUniversitat Aarhus
    • , Máté ÁdámkovicsAffiliated withUniversity of California, Berkeley
    • , Simon A. KattenhornAffiliated withUniversity of Idaho
    • , Jonathan MitchellAffiliated withUniversity of California, Los Angeles
    • , Devon M. BurrAffiliated withUniversity of Tennessee, Knoxville
    • , Anthony ColapreteAffiliated withNASA Ames Research Center
    • , Emily SchallerAffiliated withUniversity of Arizona, Lunar and Planetary Laboratory
    • , A. James FriedsonAffiliated withJet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology
    • , Kenneth S. EdgettAffiliated withMalin Space Science Systems
    • , Angioletta CoradiniAffiliated withINAF, IFSI
    • , Alberto AdrianiAffiliated withINAF, IFSI
    • , Kunio M. SayanagiAffiliated withUniversity of California, Los Angeles
    • , Michael J. MalaskaAffiliated withSCYNEXIS, Inc.
    • , David MorabitoAffiliated withJet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology
    • , Kim RehAffiliated withJet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology


We describe a mission concept for a stand-alone Titan airplane mission: Aerial Vehicle for In-situ and Airborne Titan Reconnaissance (AVIATR). With independent delivery and direct-to-Earth communications, AVIATR could contribute to Titan science either alone or as part of a sustained Titan Exploration Program. As a focused mission, AVIATR as we have envisioned it would concentrate on the science that an airplane can do best: exploration of Titan’s global diversity. We focus on surface geology/hydrology and lower-atmospheric structure and dynamics. With a carefully chosen set of seven instruments—2 near-IR cameras, 1 near-IR spectrometer, a RADAR altimeter, an atmospheric structure suite, a haze sensor, and a raindrop detector—AVIATR could accomplish a significant subset of the scientific objectives of the aerial element of flagship studies. The AVIATR spacecraft stack is composed of a Space Vehicle (SV) for cruise, an Entry Vehicle (EV) for entry and descent, and the Air Vehicle (AV) to fly in Titan’s atmosphere. Using an Earth-Jupiter gravity assist trajectory delivers the spacecraft to Titan in 7.5 years, after which the AVIATR AV would operate for a 1-Earth-year nominal mission. We propose a novel ‘gravity battery’ climb-then-glide strategy to store energy for optimal use during telecommunications sessions. We would optimize our science by using the flexibility of the airplane platform, generating context data and stereo pairs by flying and banking the AV instead of using gimbaled cameras. AVIATR would climb up to 14 km altitude and descend down to 3.5 km altitude once per Earth day, allowing for repeated atmospheric structure and wind measurements all over the globe. An initial Team-X run at JPL priced the AVIATR mission at FY10 $715M based on the rules stipulated in the recent Discovery announcement of opportunity. Hence we find that a standalone Titan airplane mission can achieve important science building on Cassini’s discoveries and can likely do so within a New Frontiers budget.


Titan Mission concept Airplane UAV