It’s been a year since Curiosity touched down on Mars and began sending information and images back to Earth. The safe landing and subsequent surveying were the results of years of study and development dedicated to a single goal. While Curiosity continues to chug away on the surface of Mars, NASA has plenty of other irons in the fire, and research continues for future exploration missions to other celestial bodies.
The next major mission may well involve a trip to Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. SETI, funded by NASA, is developing an aquatic robot to land on the moon, and explore Titan’s liquid methane seas. The Planetary Lake Lander (PLL) is currently in the prototype phase and busy at work mapping Laguna Negra in the Chilean Andes.
As a result of its location, high in the Andes, the combination of potential hazards and an ever-changing environment makes Laguna Negra a solid location to work on the prototype. The weather can change abruptly, and without much warning, and the glaciers that were thick around Laguna Negra have begun to melt at a rapid pace. The melt runs off into Laguna Negra, altering its ecosystems and providing fodder for study and development.
Currently the PLL is a collection of scientific instruments meant for terrestrial studies and is under the direct control of the research team. SETI and NASA will soon begin working on granting the robot intelligence. The delay between Titan and Earth is around an hour, meaning direct control of the robot won’t be practical for rapidly shifting weather patterns or taking note of unusual events.
The goal is for the PLL to be able to respond to potential hazards or noteworthy happenings on its own, without checking home first. All of that is probably at least a decade away, but the search for life on Titan will be an important moment in history.
Below you’ll find a short video about the PLL base camp.