NASA is developing plans to send a smart submarine into space to explore the murky depths of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Thanks to the Cassini space probe that discovered stable bodies of liquid on the moon’s surface, NASA discovered Titan is the only source in our solar system where surface liquids are present.
As the old adage goes, where there is water, there could be life. However, with a toxic mix of methane and ethane, any life present would have to be pretty hardy. The ocean on Titan’s surface, being over 400,000 sq km in size, was christened as Kraken Mare in 2008 after the legendary sea creature. Since then, NASA has been eager to explore it.
As of Feb. 2018, the deep space submarine is but an idea, as no actual plans or designs exist for such a vessel. “As such no one has yet envisioned what such a craft might look like, how it would operate or if it could be built,” NASA’s mission website states. Even though the plan is in its earliest stages, NASA estimates that a mission to deliver such a vehicle is possible in the next 20 years.
If a design is finalized, NASA faces three additional problems. Titan is over 886 million miles away from Earth, which means an accompanying rocket, specially made for holding the submarine would have to be designed so that a smooth delivery can be achieved. Second, once the sub would be submerged in the lake on Titan, maintaining communication with it could prove difficult due to the toxic conditions. The third problem is that Kraken Mare reaches frigid temperatures of -184˚C.
Luckily, the University of Washington has lent a hand to NASA to solve the temperature problem and is developing a test chamber that houses a liquid chemical mixture which simulates the conditions found on Titan. Researchers are also looking at the possible presence of nitrogen, which makes the lake freeze at lower temperatures than normal. “That’s a big deal,’’ said University of Washington researcher Ian Richardson in an interview. “That means you don’t have to worry about a submarine hitting any icebergs.”
With the help of scientists and researchers such as those at the University of Washington, NASA can get that much closer to realizing their goals. There are many challenges ahead, but if they’re successful and the Titan submarine becomes reality, it will represent a massive milestone for modern space exploration.