At a recent advanced concepts symposium, NASA scientists unveiled a conceptual plan to explore the frigid methane and ethane seas on Saturn's largest moon, Titan, using a robotic submarine.


The details were presented at the 2015 NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Symposium in Cocoa Beach, Florida.

Titan is an intriguing destination for exploration owing to its thick atmosphere and vast northern polar seas of methane and ethane. These seas have similar characteristics to liquified natural gas (LNG) on Earth.

Kraken Mare (NASA)

The chosen target, the awesomely named Kraken Mare, is about 600 miles (1,000 km) in length but with an unknown depth. NASA would very much like to investigate its complex shoreline and rich chemistry. To do so, its scientists have sketched-out the design for a robotic sub capable of exploring this exotic environment.

The proposed submersible would weight about one tonne and be powered by a radioisotope Stirling generator power source. If approved, the sub could make splashdown in the year 2040, at which time it would commence on a 90-day, 1,200 mile (2,000 km) journey around Kraken Mare.

Designs call for a sub with a slender low-drag hull and rear propulsors. It would have a large dorsal phased array antenna at the front which would include a surface camera. This antenna will have to be strong enough to transmit signals over billions of miles back to Earth; as the NASA scientists noted, "It was decided to simplify the mission to exclude a relay orbiter which would require significant propulsion and radioisotope power." In addition, the sub will be equipped with a sidescan sonar, seafloor camera, and a seafloor sampling system on the ventral side.

NASA describes the science mission thusly:



The vehicle would observe – and perhaps ultimately exploit - tidal currents in the sea, which follow a cycle once per Titan day, or 16 Earth days. When surfaced, as well as communicating with Earth, the vehicle would use a mast-mounted camera to observe the sea state and shoreline landscape, and would record meteorological observations. Measurement of the trace organic components of the sea, which perhaps may exhibit prebiotic chemical evolution, will be an important objective, and a benthic sampler would acquire and analyze sediment from the seabed. These measurements, and seafloor morphology via sidescan sonar, may shed light on the historical cycles of filling and drying of Titan's seas. Models suggest Titan's active hydrological cycle may cause the north part of Kraken to be 'fresher' (more methane-rich) than the south, and the submarine's long traverse will explore these composition variations.

Fingers are seriously crossed that this will actually happen.

[ h/t Gizmag ]

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