NASA Plans to Dive a Robotic Submarine into One of Titan’s Polar Seas
Tech & Science
by Paul Huntly - Feb 16, 2015
NASA recently unveiled the plans of building a robotic submarine that would submerse in the methane seas of one of the Saturn’s largest moons, Titan. The deep-sea craft, dubbed Titan Submarine Phase I Conceptual Design, was designed by NASA Glenn’s COMPASS Team and the Applied Research Lab.
The new sub looks like some of the very old subs used on Earth during the Civil War, but the technology it uses is far from old since it will be an unmanned undersea vehicle that must face an unknown and hostile environment.
The Titan Submarine will be deployed into the Kraken Mare, Titan’s largest polar sea. The Saturn’s largest moon has three main seas or lakes, which held liquid methane/ ethane rather than water. Kraken Mare has spots that are up to 525 feet (160 meters) deep, while its surface covers nearly 154,000 square miles (247,839 square kilometers).
NASA’s submarine is expected to explore the sea for about 90 days and travel more than 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers) under its waves. Until then, though, many obstacles must be surpassed.
First, the submarine will have some hard times to reach the remote sea. NASA plans to attach it to a winged spacecraft that would dive into the sea and deploy the submarine at a safe depth.
Second, Kraken Mare is not a safe sea either. Its surface gets often swept by strong currents and tides. So, safely deploying a submarine there may be one of NASA’s greatest challenges.
The researchers must solve the communication issue, too. While staying under the sea surface, the sub cannot beam to Earth the scientific data it collected. So, it will have to resurface at constant intervals of time to send signals to Earth. Scientists estimate that the best time lapse to resurface the craft is 16 hours.
The sub will also need a system that would keep it going in an environment that prevents solar energy from being used. So, its designers plan to propulsate it by means of a radiothermal generator. Also, because Titan’s seas are extremely cold, the submarine needs a piston-based mechanism that would keep its ballast from freezing.
However, NASA wasn’t very specific on what the submarine would be looking for. But some researchers believe that it would search for traces of ancient life in the sea, or help scientists develop a better theory on early solar system formation.
NASA hopes that the submarine would be ready for a dive on Titan by 2040.