A Close-up Look below the Surface

A engineering drawing of the Titan Mare Explorer craft proposed as a future NASA mission. Credit: Proxemy Research

One of the goals of the Planetary Lake Lander Project is to develop technology that could be applied to a future mission Saturn’s giant moon Titan.

The Titan Mare Explorer (TiME) mission, proposed by Ellen Stofan of Proxemy Research, in Rectortown, Va., would land an autonomous spacecraft on and sail across one of Titan’s methane lakes, capturing photographs and taking measurements both above and below the lake’s surface. This proposed mission is one of three funded for further design development as the next possible NASA Discovery mission.

Over the three-year course of the PLL project, engineers will develop a floating robot with capabilities similar to those that will be required by TiMe or a similar mission to Titan. The Planetary Lake Lander will be able to respond autonomously to scientifically interesting events in the rapidly changing glacial-lake environment of Laguna Negra. Robotic autonomy will be important to any Titan mission because Titan is too far from Earth for scientists here to receive data from a spacecraft on Titan and to respond with real-time commands. A robot exploring one of Titan’s lakes will need to operate on its own.

But for the first year, the Planetary Lake Lander will be under human control. It will remain behind at Laguna Negra when the PLL team leaves in mid-December, deploying a package of instruments that for a three-month period will continuously monitor conditions above and below the surface of Laguna Negra, sending its data, on demand, back to engineers at NASA Ames Research Center.

David Wettergreen tests his prototype underwater microscopic camera along the southern shore of Laguna Negra. Credit: Henry Bortman

Onboard the PLL during this initial 3-month stint will be a 5-megapixel camera, remotely controllable; a meteorological station to track weather conditions through the summer months; and a sonde, a package of instruments for measuring water temperature, salinity, pH and other lake-water characteristics at various depths.

Future posts will report on the deployment of the pontoon (the floating platform) and the instruments that will be installed on it. But all this was not yet in place in the early days of the PLL field season. What did get tested early on, briefly, was a microscopic underwater camera designed to give a very close-up look at what’s lurking beneath the surface of Laguna Negra.

David Wettergreen of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., made a quick stop at the PLL base camp today to try out the camera, which lives inside a watertight metal housing. The 15-micron-per-pixel camera can see extremely small details: a single human hair appears 8 pixels wide.

The good news: the underwater test worked. The not so good news: mostly what it saw was bubbles. Not even a lonely copepod ventured by during the test. Later, however, back on shore, Wettergreen pointed the camera at a small plastic bottle filled with copepods from the lake, and beautifully detailed images of the tiny swimming crustaceans sprung to life.

The underwater camera will not be part of the instrument package deployed on the PLL at the end of the first field season, but it will be integrated into the PLL in future years.

After a few days of clear blue skies, clouds began building up in the afternoons. The gravel beach in the lower right, a short walk from base camp, has been dubbed La Playa. Credit: Henry Bortman

Meanwhile, on the quality-of-life front, still no shower. Or bathroom. There are workarounds. Instead of a relaxing, warm shower, a quick jump in the freezing cold lake does wonders. For the faint of heart, pouring a bottle of water over one’s head also works. As for the bathroom, if you’ve ever gone backpacking…

Quote of the day: “Ve haf vays of making ze radios talk.”

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