Nothing bespeaks humankind’s potential more than the following statement: Around 2040, NASA plans to splash down a submarine to explore a liquid hydrocarbon lake on Titan.
Fore more than a decade now, Titan has captivated astronomers not simply by being Saturn’s largest moon by far but also with its vast seas of liquid methane and ethane. NASA has its eyes on the largest such lake, called Kraken Mare, located near the moon’s north pole. The Cassini mission helped map the lake in great detail since it reached the Saturnian system in 2004, accompanied by the Huygens probe that landed on the moon’s surface in 2005. Thanks to them, we know Kraken Mare has an intricate shoreline and deposits of water-soluble minerals around it. According to the scientists who authored the article describing the submarine, these features “hint at a rich chemistry and climate history”.
They continue: “The proposed ~1-tonne vehicle, with a radioisotope Stirling generator power source, would be delivered to splashdown circa 2040, to make a ~90-day, ~2,000 km voyage of exploration around the perimeter, and across the central depths of Kraken.” While its design is by no means final (it’s described as a “first cut”), that NASA is considering exploring Titan in great detail belies its interest in the moon as well as continued commitment to studying the Saturnian system in general. Note that the agency cancelled the development of the proposed Titan Mare Explorer – a nautical surface probe – soon after 2013 to channel the funds into developing Stirling radioisotope generators, which we now find could be used to power the submarine.
Notwithstanding future budgetary cuts, delivering such a vehicle to the surface of a faraway moon might just signify the next leap in astronautical engineering. As the scientists remark,
Even with its planetary application aside, this exercise has forced us to look at submarine vehicle design drivers in a whole new way.
The current design has been developed by scientists from the JHU Applied Physics Laboratory, the NASA Glenn Research Center, and the Penn State Applied Research Lab. It will be presented at the 46th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas, during March 16-20.
Around 2040, they expect to be able to deliver it to Titan on board a ‘spaceplane carrier’, essentially a repurposed US Air Force DARPA X-37. According to them, Titan’s thick atmosphere could allow the carrier to descend to the surface at hypersonic speeds, following which attempt a soft-landing on the Kraken Mare. Finally, “the backshell covering the submarine would be jettisoned and the lifting body would sink, leaving the submarine floating to begin operations. (Alternatively, the submersible could be extracted in low level flight by parachute).”
Once inside, it will explore tidal currents in Kraken Mare, use a camera mounted on the mast to explore the shoreline landscape, make meteorological observations, analyze sediments from the seabed, and study trace organic compounds to learn how they evolved.
The submarine itself looks conventional apart from a large dorsal antenna and two cylindrical buoyancy tanks that jut out of the upper surface. According to its designers, the antenna was shaped so to be able to send data across billions of kilometers to Earth. And such large buoyancy tanks are necessary because the lake the submarine will explore is composed of methane and ethane, whose densities range from 450 kg/m3 to 670 kg/m3, as well as to counter the unique drag effects arising due to the dorsal antenna.
Another complication is thermodynamics. Titan has a frigid surface, cold enough to keep methane, whose boiling point is -161.5 degrees Celsius, in its liquid form. As a result, extra heat rejected from the submarine’s radioisotope power source could cause the surrounding methane and ethane to bubble. As the scientists explain, this results in “heat transfer uncertainties” as well as the potential to interfere with sonar observations. At the same time, the vessel must also be heavily insulated to allow the power source to warm its insides.
NASA first announced its intention to explore Kraken Mare with a submarine in June 2014, elaborating that the mission would help scientists learn more about the history and evolution of organic compounds in the Solar System, in turn a “critical step” along the path to understanding the formation of life. Earth and Titan are the only two objects in the System to host liquid lakes on their surfaces, albeit of different compositions.