NASA is setting its sights on a mission to go where no sub has gone before with a proposal to send a space submarine to explore the depths of Kraken Mare, the largest known body of water on Saturn’s moon Titan. As the only celestial body besides Earth to host mass collections of liquid, the agency considers it an opportunity to enrich their knowledge of the solar system’s development of organic compounds, which they believe would enhance their understanding of the origins of life on Earth. The proposal is still in the earliest planning stages with many details to be worked out before a potential mid-century mission could receive an official go ahead.
A submarine mission in Titan’s oceans poses many challenges to NASA’s engineers. The Kraken provides an inhospitable environment of chilly liquid methane and ethane hydrocarbons. In addition, scientists must answer the logistical dilemma of transporting the oddly shaped sub to the moon’s liquid surface as well as maintaining power in areas obscured from sunlight and communications with NASA to relay reports of its findings.
A drone mission is the only feasible way to explore Titan’s seas since the freezing temperatures of the liquified natural gases preclude human divers from taking a swim in the ocean. The idea of exploring the Kraken using a one ton nuclear submarine fitted with seafloor cameras and a sampling system is an improvement over earlier proposals involving suspended “diving bells.” Although the proposed sub will not fit into a typical conic lander, NASA is considering the idea of transporting the vehicle to Titan in a Boeing X-37 space plane which could make a soft water landing on the Kraken’s surface before jettisoning the sub to begin its exploratory mission.
Titan mission objectives have yet to be clearly defined. However, the general goal would be to design an autonomous submersible craft capable of independently exploring the alien ocean and sending detailed scientific reports of its findings back to NASA for further analysis in order to discover what lies beneath the lunar seas of Saturn. The proposal suggests allowing space scientists and engineers create a “conceptual design” of a submarine vehicle capable of collecting data on the chemical makeup of the seas, the currents and tides, the winds and waves and the composition and topography of the seabed.
Kraken Mare covers an area and depth on par with the Great Lakes and therefore, provides NASA with an unparalleled prospect to take space explorations far beyond the wildest imaginations of the earliest science fiction visionaries such as Jules Verne. Such a project would stretch the limits of NASA’s current terrestrial-based explorations and add nautical operations to their list of extraterrestrial exploratory capabilities. The Titan submarine mission could possibly be a follow-up to a terrestrial exploration of the moon’s surface or a joint operation involving both land and nautical explorations.
NASA expects the adventure and excitement of exploring a mysterious extraterrestrial surface using groundbreaking underwater technology to be a powerful hook with which to draw in the attention and imaginations of countless students and teachers. The decades of planning ahead before the agency hopes to bring its mission proposal to fruition, gives aspiring space scientists, engineers and astronauts plenty of time to dream and apply their creative juices to solving the myriad of challenges of putting a submarine in the Titan seas. NASA expects that the research necessary to develop Titan Sub technology will point the way to even more outlandish explorations to follow.
By Tamara Christine
Image courtesy of NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute