June 11, 2001
Engineers are constantly planning for the future. In space exploration, this means coming up with innovative and energy-efficient ways to study harsh but scientifically interesting environments that are millions or billions of miles from Earth. The Aerover Blimp is one concept JPL engineers are considering--in this case, for a proposed future visit to Titan, one of Saturn's moons.
The Aerover is a small helium-filled blimp that can be steered and moved up and down within the atmosphere to explore different altitudes. Three propellers are likely to be used to allow this maneuvering.
The ability of this blimp to move and be repositioned allows for its use as a mobile aerial platform to carry instruments that take readings from different locations, and even follow up on interesting features. Landing is accomplished with an inflatable wheel on the bottom of the blimp, which can cushion a landing on ice, rocks or other surfaces. The blimp will also provide flotation on potential liquid methane oceans, thus making the Aerover the ultimate all-terrain-vehicle. The Aerover will likely have the ability to fly along at 10 kilometers altitude (about 6 miles), circumnavigating the moon every one or two weeks and providing imaging and science well below the upper opaque clouds that prevent viewing from Earth or from orbit.
The proposed helium-filled blimp could have a fabric outer surface with an inner balloon containing helium. Helium is used because it is the second lightest element, and is inert, eliminating the danger of fire or explosion before and during launch from Earth. Overall size may be about 10 meters (33 feet) in length and 2.5 meters (8 feet) in diameter - roughly the length and height of a stretch limousine. Overall weight may be about 100 kilograms (220 pounds).
Titan is of great interest to scientists because observations have indicated the presence of a rich organic atmosphere, which helps create the building blocks of complex organic compounds. This leads scientists to speculate that present-day conditions on Saturn's moon may be similar to those on Earth billions of years before life emerged here.
Our first close-up look at Titan will be when the Cassini spacecraft arrives in the Saturn system in 2004. The spacecraft will deploy the Huygens probe to study Titan, gathering data that may lead to a mission after 2010, with the possible use of the Aerover Blimp for further exploration.
American Blimp Corporation is studying various designs of an experimental blimp for JPL’s exploration of Titan.