Submarines aren’t the type of vehicle typically associated with NASA, yet a new presentation given by NASA engineers details the space agency’s new plan to build a deep space submarine to explore the oceans of moons in our solar system. At the 2016 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Symposium in Raleigh, NC, NASA cryogenics engineer Jason Hartwig announced that a plan to build a submarine destined for Saturn’s moon Titan is in the works.

The submarine is designed with Titan’s Kraken Mare sea in mind. The Kraken Mare is the largest body of liquid on Titan, and is estimated to be around 160 meters deep. Chemical spectrography has revealed that the sea is made up of hydrocarbons, most likely methane. Due to Titan’s strange orbit, the Kraken Mare is thought to contain whirlpools, unusual tides, and shallow waves.

Satellite imagery of the Kraken Mare taken by the Cassini probe.

Titan is the only known object in our solar system to contain bodies of liquid on its surface, other than Earth, of course. Due to Titan’s dense methane-rich atmosphere, little was known about the moon until the Cassini space probe entered Saturn’s orbit in 2004 and discovered the liquid regions near Titan’s poles. The presence of liquids on Titan leads some scientists to speculate that Titan could be a reasonable candidate for extraterrestrial life.

The submarine is designed to search for life in Titan's methane seas.

NASA’s proposed submarine has two main objectives: searching for hydrocarbon-based life in the Kraken Mare, and studying the chemical composition of the sea and seafloor. Due to the depth and density of Titan’s methane seas, the submarine will be unable to communicate directly with Earth while submerged. For that reason, the submarine is being planned as a fully autonomous rover similar to the Mars Curiosity rover currently exploring the red planet. 

Conceptual drawing of the Titan submarine.

As exciting as this proposed sea submarine sounds, the project is still in the conceptual phase. Due to the orientation of the Earth and Saturn, Titan will be far too cold for sea exploration until at least 2038 so the submarine won’t leave Earth for another couple of decades. Still, you gotta hand it to NASA: those wonderful nerds dream big.


Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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