Since we sent a helicopter to Mars, why not send a submarine to Titan?

A submarine exploring the seas on a distant globe? Such a mission could become a reality in just a few decades. Scientists are just preparing a mission concept where the submarine would explore the lakes on the surface of Titan, Saturn's largest moon.

Initial estimates indicate that if NASA decides to finance such a mission, the spacecraft will be ready for launch in the 1930s, while paving the way for further submarine missions.

We think the Titan submarine will only be the first step before sending a similar boat to Europe or Enceladus, says Steven Oleson, of NASA's Ohio Research Center.

Europa and Enceladus have vast oceans of liquid water, but they are nevertheless hidden under a thick layer of ice, so it is much more difficult to get a submarine there than to the lakes on Titan's surface.

A peculiar and very interesting world

Titan is the second largest moon in the solar system. At 5,150 km in diameter, it is slightly larger than Mercury, the smallest planet in the US.

In many ways, Titan is completely unlike any other object in our planetary system. First, as the only object outside the Earth, Titan has vast lakes on its surface filled with… not water, but liquid methane and ethane. Second, as the only moon Titan is covered in a dense atmosphere composed of huge amounts of organic compounds that can form the building blocks of the life forms we know from Earth. So it's no wonder that astrobiologists consider Titan a potential habitat for extraterrestrial life. If there really is any life there, it will not in any way resemble earthly life. The temperature on the surface of Titan fluctuates around -189 degrees Celsius and remains constant around the whole year. There is a possibility that there are tanks of liquid water deep beneath Titan's surface. If this is the case, theoretically, there may be two independent ecosystems on Titan: surface ecosystems with peculiar life existing in hydrocarbon lakes, and subsurface life in underground water reservoirs.

The Cassini probe showed us the real Titan

Most of our current knowledge of Titan comes from the Cassini spacecraft, which orbited Saturn from 2004 to 2017, passing Titan many times. Some of the knowledge about the surface itself comes from the Huygens lander, which was dropped from the Cassini spacecraft to the surface.

In 2026, the Dragonfly probe will fly towards the moon. Its task will be to deliver a specific drone with eight rotors to the surface of Titan. It will be able to move through the atmosphere of the moon, exploring different, distant environments.

The next step, according to many researchers, should be sending a boat that could plunge into the hydrocarbon lakes of Titan. Interestingly, the lakes on Titan are transparent to radio waves, so at least in theory, communication with the boat would be possible also when it was submerged under the lake's surface. The boats could receive signals sent from the orbital probe, but also directly from Earth.

If the mission was to send the boat itself, it would have to be quite large (approx. 6 m in length and a mass of 1,500 kg to accommodate the necessary communication equipment. If, in addition to the boat, an orbiter was sent, the whole thing could be included in the package) 2 m long and weighing 500 kg.

A mission of this type would have to be implemented under the program of the flagship space missions with the highest budgets. The estimated cost of sending the submarine to Titan is over $ 2 billion.

Start in the 1930s? This is the only solution

Most of the lakes are located around the north pole of the moon, including the two most interesting lakes: Kraken Mare and Ligeia Mare. The first one has an area of ​​over 400,000 square kilometers and a minimum depth of 35 meters. The second one is 130,000 km and 170 m respectively.

Like Saturn, Titan also has seven Earth-year seasons. The ideal time to study Titan would therefore be summer in the moon's northern hemisphere, when the probe could directly photograph lake shorelines in the visible range and directly contact mission control on Earth.

Reaching this Titan in 2045 would therefore be the best solution. If, however, as part of the mission, NASA decided to send a boat and an orbiter, they could reach their destination in spring, i.e. around 2040.

The journey to Saturn takes about seven years, therefore any submarine mission would have to take off towards Saturn in the 1930s. The alternative is to wait another three decades for another summer on Saturn.

Although 2040 and 2045 are a distant future for us, given the challenges faced by engineers working on creating the entire mission, NASA does not really have much time to make a decision. And most importantly, so far it is not known if the submarine will be yellow.

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Since we sent a helicopter to Mars, why not send a submarine to Titan?


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