NASA Wants to Drop a Submarine in Titan's Ocean to Find Life


NASA is working on sending a submarine into the depths of the Kraken Mare — the largest ocean on Saturn’s moon Titan.

There are really two big reasons why we want to go to Titan. Number one: “to determine if hydrocarbon-based life is possible on Titan,” said Jason Hartwig, a NASA cryogenics engineer, in a presentation at the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Symposium in Raleigh on Wednesday.

Number two: as the only moon in our solar system with clouds and an atmosphere, Titan is very similar to Earth — apart from the extreme cold and oceans of liquid methane. But hidden in the methane sea may be clues to how life evolved and potentially some weird extraterrestrial microbes.

Hartwig’s proposed submarine would carry instruments to measure the chemical composition of the ocean, the currents and tides, and the structure of the ocean floor. The mast at the top allows the sub to communicate with Earth when it surfaces, and since it won’t be able to communicate when underwater, its search for life is planned to be fully autonomous, probably with tech similar to what the Mars 2020 rover is carrying.

Right now, this is the general design for the Titan Submarine.


There are still a number of problems to be overcome, including figuring out if the gas ejection system the submarine would use to change depth would actually work in a high-pressure methane ocean. “Somewhere around the 450-500 meter mark we may start to freeze,” said Hartwig. Freezing, in general, is bad, so Hartwig and his team are working on a fix to get the sub 500 meters or more below the surface.

The whole plan is still in the conceptual stages, and a one-shot mission to Titan probably can’t occur until 2038 because of how the Earth and Saturn are aligned with Titan’s seasons. But if the epic soundtrack of this concept video for the submarine is any sign, NASA’s getting pretty hyped about this idea.

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