NASA scientists propose sending a submarine to explore Titan's seas

The mission could launch as soon as the 2030s, the researchers said.

NASA scientists propose sending a submarine to explore Titan's seas

Illustration of the submarine.

  • A team of scientists have been developing a proposal that would send a semi-autonomous submarine to explore the seas of Titan, Saturn's largest moon.
  • Titan is the only body in our solar system that has large bodies of liquid on its surface.
  • It's also a top candidate in the search for alien life.

What lies in the alien seas of Titan, Saturn's largest moon?

To find out, a team of researchers has spent years developing a plan that would send a submarine to explore the moon's extremely inhospitable lakes and seas, potentially as soon as the 2030s. NASA hasn't approved the mission, but the agency has granted the researchers two rounds of funding through the Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.

If approved, the mission would be a massive undertaking, requiring the transport of a semi-autonomous, nuclear-powered submarine that's 20 feet long and 3,300 pounds on a seven-year journey to Saturn.

In a NASA blog post, Steven Oleson of NASA's Glenn Research Center wrote:

"The mission concept we propose to study will investigate a full spectrum of oceanographic phenomena: chemical composition of the liquid, surface and subsurface currents, mixing and layering in the 'water' column, tides, wind and waves, bathymetry, and bottom features and composition."

Later in the post, Oleson added that the mission could help scientists better understand how life evolved on Earth, and potentially on Titan. In a presentation with NASA's Future In-Space Operations working group earlier this month, Oelson said:

"We feel that the Titan submarine is kind of a first step before you go do a [sub mission on] Europa or Enceladus."

​Why study Titan?

Titan has long been a top candidate for space research and the search for alien life within our solar system. But scientists didn't know much about the Mercury-sized moon until 2004, when NASA's Cassini spacecraft began conducting flybys of Titan, and later landed the Huygens probe on the moon's surface.

That mission revealed that Titan is actually more like Earth than our Moon: Titan has an atmosphere with organic molecules and complex chemistry. It has rain and storms, which help to shape the dunes on its surface. And it has maria (seas) and lacus (lakes), some larger than the Great Lakes of North America. Besides Earth, no other body in our solar system has liquid on its surface like Titan does.

Titan

Titan

NASA

Still, it might be more accurate to think of Titan as a "deranged Earth," as Caitlin Griffith, a professor in the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, put it to Forbes. After all, Titan's orangeish atmosphere is incredibly smoggy, made mostly of nitrogen and a bit of methane. Its surface is incredibly cold, at about -290 degrees Fahrenheit. And its frigid seas are made of ethane or methane, not water.

But the strange composition of Titan's seas might not be a bad thing: It should be relatively easy for a submarine to travel through Titan's seas, and the salty liquid wouldn't interfere with radio signals. (Depending on the mission design, those signals would be beamed directly to Earth, or to a relay orbiter outside of Titan.)

The submarine would likely explore two of Titan's largest northern seas, Kraken Mare and Ligeia Mare, which cover thousands of square miles and reach depths of 115 feet and 560 feet, respectively.

It's unclear what the submarine might find. Organisms as we know them on Earth would have a tough time surviving in Titan's seas, but scientists do generally agree that it's possible the moon may harbor microbial life.

If the mission is approved, the submarine would likely need to reach Titan during the moon's spring or summer, when there's visible light. Given that each of Titan's seasons last about seven years, that means the submarine would need to launch in the 2030s, if it's going to happen in the mid-term future.

In 2026, NASA plans to launch a rotorcraft to Titan as part of a separate mission.

"With the Dragonfly mission, NASA will once again do what no one else can do," said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. "Visiting this mysterious ocean world could revolutionize what we know about life in the universe. This cutting-edge mission would have been unthinkable even just a few years ago, but we're now ready for Dragonfly's amazing flight."

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

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Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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