NASA is planning to build the first ever robotic submersible to explore the solar system, and hopes to send it to Saturn’s moon Titan.
The lack of liquid water on most celestial bodies means that our exploration of other planets and moons has been on dry land, until now. The Titan Submarine Phase I Conceptual Design is being developed by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, with the exploration of the hydrocarbon lakes of Saturn’s moon Titan in its sights, writes Ryan Whitwam of Extreme Tech.
NASA to explore hydrocarbon lake
Titan is bigger than Mercury, and its atmosphere is 1.5 times denser than Earth’s, which makes it a fascinating moon to study. The possibilities of finding life are slim, and certainly not life as we know it, given that the atmosphere is largely made up of nitrogen and methane, with a small hint of hydrogen. The atmospheric temperature can dip as low as -179 degrees Celsius, which in conjunction with the thick atmosphere means that there are huge lakes and rivers of liquid methane and ethane.
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The existence of three large polar seas on Titan has been confirmed by data from the Voyager, Cassini and Huygens probes, and the largest sea is known as Kraken Mare. If NASA succeeds in sending a robot submarine, this would be its destination.
The mission would not be without its complications. Kraken Mare has an area of 400,000 square kilometers, and data suggests that it could be up to 160 meters deep. There is also the small matter of currents and tides to contend with, and it would take 160 minutes for NASA to send commands and receive a response, because Titan is 80 light minutes away.
NASA engineers say that solar panels would not be an effective source of power due to the distance from the Sun, and the fact that the submarine would spend the majority of its time beneath the surface of the lake. One solution is the use of a radiothermal Stirling generator, which are commonly used in deep space probes.
There would be no satellite orbiting Titan in order to transmit information back to Earth, but instead the submarine itself would transmit send information directly using a built-in planar phased-array antenna.
Planning for the mission is still in its early stages, but NASA continues to come up with ambitious concepts that could greatly improve our understanding of the solar system.