NASA Awards Contract for a Methane-Powered Balloon to Explore Saturn's Moon

Balloons on Titan

Up and down, up and down ...NASA

NASA's original concept for a balloon scout on Saturn's moon Titan called for using waste heat from a radioisotope power system. But such systems come with the major downside of not providing enough heat for sudden course changes -- a problem that one company plans to solve by using hot air balloon technology, The Register reports.

Titan's atmosphere consists of 4 percent methane, which could help fuel an air-breathing system for a balloon. That would provide an extra heat boost up to 10 times greater than the main heat source in case of sudden looming mountains ... not that NASA would allow for such sloppy steering, right?

Keep in mind that hot-air ballooning on the alien world works in reverse of the usual procedure on Earth. NASA's balloons would burn oxygen by using methane from Titan's clouds, rather than burn a stream of methane and other gases by using oxygen, as a balloon in Earth's atmosphere does.

The nifty concept comes from Aurora Flight Sciences, which received NASA funding through a Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) Phase 1 proposal. The company will have help from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, according to an Aurora press release.

Aurora's other projects include an unmanned vertical-takeoff aircraft for the U.S. military.

We can already anticipate a busy future for Titan, with all the balloons buzzing mountains and extraterrestrial boats riding the liquid waves of ethane and methane. It almost makes up for the lack of astronaut boots on the ground.