One of the most profound and exciting breakthroughs in planetary science in the last two decades has been the discovery of liquid methane lakes on the surface of Saturn’s largest moon Titan, and liquid oceans under the icy surfaces of many of the giant gas planets’ other moons. Thrillingly, these some of these “waters” may actually harbour life.
Unfortunately, we don’t know much about them. Probes such as Juno and Cassini can only get so close. Also, subsurface oceans can only be sensed indirectly. The European Space Agency’s Huygens probe did land on Titan in 2005, but on a solid surface rather than on liquid. So how can we explore these seas?
An exciting idea being explored is developing submarines to send through space to the moons. Over the next two years, NASA is devoting half a million dollars to researching the prospect of sending such a vehicle to Titan. But there are other studies out there, too – with targets including Jupiter’s Europa and Ganymede, and Saturn’s Enceladus. But are such missions actually within our technological reach?
The Challenges Of A Titan Submarine
Kraken Mare is thought to be the largest sea on Titan with an area of 400,000 square kilometres – larger than Earth’s Caspian Sea. But it’s not made of water – we have good evidence that this is instead a lake of methane, ethane and nitrogen.
NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory-Caltech/Agenzia Spaziale Italiana.
So what would a submarine on Titan look like? It turns out that a design like a traditional submarine, with a high “aspect ratio” (ten times as long as it is wide), would minimise drag and could fit inside a launch vehicle. Most deep space missions operate autonomously and a submarine would be no different. However, they would have to go to the surface for periods of time. Radio and microwave signals get absorbed very quickly in oceans, so to send a signal back to Earth the antenna would have to be above the surface.