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9 Sep, 2014 17:38

NASA developing submarine to research Titan’s oceans

NASA developing submarine to research Titan’s oceans

Researchers are currently working with $100,000 worth of government funding to try and design a submarine that might someday be able to explore the depths of the sea on Saturn’s moon, Titan.

NASA announced in early June that it selected a proposed space submarine project as one of the 12 concepts that researchers will have nine months-to-one year to strive towards with the help of a hefty grant; at the end of that trial period, the agency may elect to hand over another $500,000 to any projects from the first round of prototyping deemed worthy of participating in a two-year, Phase II stage.

Steven Oleson of NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio wrote in his initial proposal for the Titan submarine that the moon of Saturn provides scientists with an unique template for space tests, but has up until now hardly been fully explored.

“Titan is unique in the outer solar system in that it is the only one of the bodies outside the Earth with liquid lakes and seas on its surface. The Titanian seas, however, are not composed of water, like Earth’s seas, but are seas of liquid hydrocarbons,” Oleson wrote. “What lies beneath the surface of Titan’s seas? We propose to develop a conceptual design of a submersible autonomous vehicle (submarine) to explore extraterrestrial seas.”

Titan Submarine: Exploring the Depths of Kraken (Image from NASA.org)

Specifically, Oleson’s proposal calls for creating a submarine that will go to Titan’s largest northern sea, Kraken Mare, in theory, and carry out tests to provide “unprecedented knowledge of an extraterrestrial sea” while “expanding NASA’s existing capabilities in planetary exploration to include in situ nautical operations,” according to his statement.

Although NASA has approved other proposals this year along the lines of the “swarm flyby gravimetry” and a “Mars ecopoiesis test bed,” the ambitious Titan submarine project managed to make headlines right away after the agency announced three months ago that it had been accepted into NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.

"It's a very far-out idea, but it's something that I think we can definitely do engineering-wise,"Oleson told NBC News back in June.

"The focus for us is trying to get a vehicle that will operate in a hydrocarbon sea," Oleson said. "Think of it as liquid natural gas. How would you get a vehicle to operate in there?"

According to a Washington Post report from earlier this year, though, the spacecraft might be able to accomplish as much be relying on that very hydrocarbon “sea water” as a fuel source, “since the methane won’t interfere with radio signals, this might make it possible to connect with an orbiting satellite in near real time.”

Should that much be accomplished, Olseon added in his proposal, then NASA may soon have even new limits to test.

“By addressing the challenges of autonomous submersible exploration in a cold outer solar system environment, Titan Sub serves as a pathfinder for even more exotic future exploration of the subsurface water oceans of Europa,” he wrote.