Researchers are working on a concept mission that may send a submarine to Saturn’s moon Titan with a launch date as early as next decade. Titan is an incredibly interesting moon and a map that NASA released last year showed six important features that included dunes, plains, liquid hydrocarbon lakes, hummocky terrain (or small mountains), craters, and labyrinth terrain.
If the mission would be approved and funded by NASA, the submarine could be launched sometime in the 2030s which would be very exciting in terms of examining a moon so far away from us (almost 900 million miles from Earth). In a presentation last month, Steven Oleson from NASA's Glenn Research Center in Ohio stated, “We feel that the Titan submarine is kind of a first step before you go do a Europa or Enceladus” sub mission.
Titan would be the perfect place to send a submarine as it contains lakes and seas of liquid methane and ethane – some are even larger than the Great Lakes. Additionally, the 3,200-mile-wide moon’s atmosphere is believed to have organic molecules which are incredibly important for life. Whether or not Titan harbors any type of life is still unknown, so sending a submarine there would hopefully help scientists answer that very question.
NASA’s Cassini Saturn orbiter and the Huygens lander have already gathered significant data on Titan and NASA is also working on a new Titan spacecraft called Dragonfly which is scheduled to be launched in 2026 and will arrive at the moon in 2034. The craft has eight rotors and flies similar to a large drone. It will fly to several locations on Titan in hopes of finding prebiotic chemical processes.
While NASA hasn’t chosen a submarine as an official mission to Titan, Oleson and his team have already received some funding from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. In order to hold all of the necessary equipment, the submarine would have to be fairly large at around 20 feet in length and weigh approximately 3,300 pounds (1,500 kilograms). The equipment onboard the submarine would include a weather station and a depth sounder in addition to instruments capable of testing liquid samples and measuring physical properties of the seas and lakes as well as taking pictures.
Since Titan’s seasons each last seven Earth years, the ideal time to launch the spacecraft would be sometime in the 2030s so that it would arrive on the moon in the 2040s during its northern summer. Two of the most interesting places on the moon that the submarine would probably get the best results are Kraken Mare and Ligeia Mare which are both in the northern part of the moon where the majority of the seas and lakes are located. Kraken Mare is approximately 154,000 square miles and at least 115 feet deep, while Ligeia Mare covers about 50,000 square miles and has a depth of around 560 feet at its deepest point.
This would surely be a fascinating mission if it does happen as the information that the submarine would gather would give us a whole new understanding of Saturn’s largest moon.