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Exploring Hydrocarbon Seas on Saturn's Moon Titan

This could be one of the most exciting missions in the history of space exploration

Submarine navigating below the surface of Kraken Mare, a sea on Saturn's moon Titan

Submarine navigation: An artist's concept of a submarine navigating with sonar in the depths of Titan's Kraken Mare. Image by NASA.

The Titan Submarine Mission

NASA scientists are currently designing a potential mission to deploy an autonomous submarine that will explore a large hydrocarbon sea on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. This mission will be very similar to the extremely successful Mars rover missions that have produced many important discoveries [1]. Exploring the depths of a sea on a distant moon has the potential to be one of the most exciting missions in the history of NASA.

Titan submarine: A NASA video illustrating one concept of the submarine that might be used to explore Kraken Mare, a hydrocarbon sea on Saturn's moon Titan. Video by NASA. [Music only - no narration.]

The Strange World of Titan

The surface environment of Titan is extremely different from Earth, but at the same time it is one of the most Earth-like locations in our solar system. Titan is the only moon in our solar system that has clouds. It is the only body in our solar system besides Earth that has standing lakes and seas on its surface. It also has rivers, deltas, linear mountain ranges, and sand dunes. The volcanoes on Titan erupt liquid water and the rocks found on Titan are composed of water ice.

Titan’s atmosphere is composed mainly of nitrogen and methane. This atmosphere is photochemically active, and these reactions produce minor amounts of ethane, ethylene, acetylene, and propane [2]. With a surface temperature of about minus 180 degrees Celsius, the lakes and seas on Titan are not filled with liquid water; instead, they are filled with liquid hydrocarbons -- similar to the liquefied natural gas (LNG) on Earth [3]. These liquids and atmospheric gases are flammable on Earth, but on Titan there is no free oxygen to support combustion.

In the unlikely event that life exists on Titan, it will probably be very different from life forms known on Earth.

Titan submarine: A NASA video illustrating one concept of the submarine that might be used to explore Kraken Mare, a hydrocarbon sea on Saturn's moon Titan. Video by NASA. [Music only - no narration.]

Titan submarine on the surface of Kraken Mare with Saturn visible in the sky

Titan submarine on the surface of Kraken Mare: An artist's concept of a submarine on the surface of Titan's lake, Kraken Mare, with the planet Saturn visible in the sky. Image by NASA.

Potential Exploration Site

The largest sea in the northern hemisphere of Titan is Kraken Mare. It is similar in size to the Great Lakes and has an estimated maximum depth of about 300 meters. Kraken Mare is filled with liquid methane and ethane. This is the potential exploration site for the proposed submarine.

Delivering the submarine to the lake is complex. The rocket used for the journey to Titan will carry a spaceplane similar to an Air Force X-37. The submarine will be inside of the spaceplane. The rocket will release the spaceplane high over Titan, and the plane will then fly to the exploration site and release the submarine. This might be done by landing the plane on the surface of the hydrocarbon lake or by releasing the submarine with a parachute.

Titan submarine on the surface of Kraken Mare transmitting data to Earth

Titan submarine transmission: An artist's concept of a submarine on the surface of Kraken Mare, transmitting data to Earth across more than one billion miles of space. Image by NASA.

The Titan Submarine

Full details of the submarine are still being developed because the mission will not be launched until 2040. Researchers currently believe that it will weigh about one ton and be equipped with a small nuclear power plant. One challenge with the nuclear power plant will be the dissipation of waste heat. Systems are being designed to dissipate the heat in a way that produces a minimum amount of effervescence in the low-boiling-temperature liquids of the hydrocarbon sea. The submarine will have enough fuel to operate for about 90 days and travel about 1200 miles as it crosses the sea and navigates the perimeter.

Unlike water, liquid methane and ethane are transparent to radio waves. The original plan was to have a satellite orbiting above Titan. The submarine would operate continuously below the surface of the sea and not have to surface to send and receive communication like submarines must do on Earth. The sub would beam data up to an orbiting satellite that would relay the information back to Earth. The mission was simplified by giving the submarine its own large antenna and more powerful data-transmitting capabilities. Now it will surface for maximum transmission efficiency and send the data directly to Earth across more than a billion miles of space.

The submarine will have equipment that will enable it to analyze the composition of the hydrocarbon sea. One goal will be to determine if the liquid hydrocarbons in the sea might be used as a fuel during future Titan missions [1]. It will also have equipment to sample and analyze sediments on the floor of the hydrocarbon sea.

Titan Submarine References
[1] Exploring the Titan Seas in a Submarine -- Imagine That!: AeroSpace Frontiers, Volume 16, Issue 8, August 2014.

[2] Hydrocarbon Lakes on Titan: Giuseppe Mitri, Adam P. Showman, Jonathan I. Lunine, Ralph D. Lorenz; Icarus, Volume 186, pages 385-394, September 2006.

[3] Cassini Sees Sunny Seas on Titan: Cassini-Huygens Mission News, published on the NASA website, October 30, 2014.

[4] Titan Submarine: Vehicle Design and Operations Concept for the Exploration of the Hydrocarbon Seas of Saturn's Giant Moon. Ralph D. Lorenz, Steve Oleson, Jeff Woytach, Robert Jones, Anthony Colozza, Paul Schmitz, Geoffrey Landis, Michael Paul, and Justin Walsh. Published on the Universities Space Research Association website for the 46th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, 2015.

[5] Titan Submarine: Exploring the Depths of Kraken: Steven Oleson, Proposed mission description published on the NASA website, June 4, 2014.

What Work Will the Submarine Perform?

A hydrocarbon lake on an icy distant moon is one of the most interesting exploration targets in our solar system. It will be a mission of extraterrestrial oceanography that will allow the submarine to investigate:

The Titan Submarine mission will significantly advance our understanding of organic compounds in the solar system and the potential for life throughout the galaxy [5].

Author: , Ph.D.

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