NASA Is Planning To Send A Submarine To Titan, Saturn’s Largest Moon

NASA has unveiled conceptual plans to send an autonomous submarine to Titan, Saturn’s moon, in a bid to explore the vast icy reaches of the Kraken Mare.

At the recent 2015 NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Symposium in Cocoa Beach, Florida, researchers revealed the Titan Submarine Phase I Conceptual Design, an outline for a mission that could potentially take place in 2040. The ambitious plan would see an autonomous submarine dispatched to sail the near-cryogenic seas of methane and hydrocarbons that exist at the poles of Titan, the largest of which is called the Kraken Mare. Unique among the bodies of the solar system, Titan is one of the few places outside of the Earth where liquid seas and lakes can be found on the surface.

Those seas are far from hospitable, however, requiring a unique design for NASA’s proposed submarine drone. The craft would weigh about a ton, and would use electric propulsion to sail across Titan’s seas for a 90-day-mission. Due to the distance between Titan and Earth, the submarine’s operations would need to be largely autonomous, and the drone would be delivered to the surface by a winged spacecraft, similar to a U.S. Air Force X-37 lifting body. After a hypersonic entry into Titan’s atmosphere, the delivery craft would ditch and sink, leaving the submarine floating at the surface.

Powered by a 1 kW radiothermal Stirling generator, the submarine would utilize waste heat in order to prevent its systems from freezing. Though this is required to keep the submarine operating in the unspeakably cold seas, the heat would cause the liquid around the drone to boil, a fact engineers need to take into account when designing it. The submarine would utilize ballast tanks, the design of which is still under question, due to differences between the densities of Earth and Titan’s seas.

The craft would also sport a large dorsal fin, which would include a planar phased-array antenna that could relay data to Earth, negating the need for a nuclear powered orbiter relay craft. While operating, the submarine would also spend 16 hours per day on the surface, studying its surroundings and potentially even Saturn on the horizon.

NASA has proposed other ambitious extraterrestrial ventures for the coming decades as well, including helicopter drones dispatched to Mars and a Zeppelin-style craft to carry astronauts into the atmosphere of Venus. The Compass Team at NASA’s Glenn Research Center designed the Titan submarine for the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program.

[Image: NASA via the Daily Mail]