Saturn’s moon Titan is the largest body after our planet in the solar system that supports stable liquid surface oceans. However, unlike Earth that has liquid water oceans, Titan has methane oceans and NASA has a plan to send up a new submarine which will study its properties in the next 20 years. However, until that happens, the space agency will need to test its submarine in an artificial Titan’s methane ocean designed in a lab.
NASA studied Titan by analyzing data which was previously collected by the Cassini probe, which plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere in September of last year. Now scientists at Washington State University have created an artificial methane ocean in a laboratory. Precisely, the WSU researchers created a test chamber which is filled up with a “liquid mixture at very cold temperatures to simulate the seas of Titan. They added a two-inch cylinder-shaped cartridge heater that would approximate the heat that a submarine would create.”
The research team was led by Ian Richardson, a former WSU graduate student who collaborated with NASA. At the time of his internship on an unrelated subject, a NASA scientist asked him about designing a NASA submarine for Titan.
“My research just took a right turn, and I went with it. It’s a crazy experiment, and I never thought I would have had this opportunity. It’s been a very fun and challenging experimental design problem,” Richardson said in a statement published on Wednesday.
There were two major problems that the researchers faced while they were designing the test chamber. Those were the formation of bubbles, and also how the videos could be captured at a temperature which would be far below freezing temperatures.
If the submarine would generate power by a heat-generating mechanism, nitrogen bubbles would form in the cold seas of Titan, made up of methane-ethane which is at a temperature of nearly 300 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. The bubbles would interrupt the navigation of the submarine and would make it quite challenging for the instruments on the submarine to collect data properly.
Even if there were the absence of bubbles, it would be quite difficult to take images and videos of the surroundings considering the frigid temperatures, as well as the pressure which is comparable to being below 100 feet of water.
“That’s a big deal. That means you don’t have to worry about icebergs,’’ Richardson said in the statement.
The researchers had to think about how to solve the temperature and pressure problems and made a device that allowed them to get video footage from inside the artificial Titan’s methane ocean. They published their findings online on Saturday in the journal Fluid Phase Equilibria, in a paper titled “Experimental PρT-x measurements of liquid methane-ethane-nitrogen mixtures.”