The Dream of Sending a Submarine Through the Methane Seas of Saturn’s Moon Titan

“Mars, Shmars; this voyager is looking forward to a submarine ride under the icebergs on Saturn’s strange moon,” says the New York Times, introducing a piece by cosmic affairs correspondent Dennis Overbye:

What could be more exciting than flying a helicopter over the deserts of Mars? How about playing Captain Nemo on Saturn’s large, foggy moon Titan — plumbing the depths of a methane ocean, dodging hydrocarbon icebergs and exploring an ancient, frigid shoreline of organic goo a billion miles from the sun? Those are the visions that danced through my head recently…diverted to the farther reaches of the solar system by the news that Kraken Mare, an ocean of methane on Titan, had recently been gauged for depth and probably went at least 1,000 feet down. That is as deep as nuclear submarines will admit to going. The news rekindled my dreams of what I think would be the most romantic of space missions: a voyage on, and ultimately even under, the oceans of Titan…

NASA recently announced that it would launch a drone called Dragonfly to the Saturnian moon in 2026. Proposals have also circulated for an orbiter, a floating probe that could splash down in a lake, even a robotic submarine. “The Titan submarine is still going,” said Dr. Valerio Poggiali, research associate at the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science, in an email — although it is unlikely to happen before Titan’s next summer, around 2047. By then, he said, there will be more ambient light and the submarine conceivably could communicate on a direct line to Earth with no need of an orbiting radio relay.

Titan is the weirdest place in the solar system, in some regards, and also the world most like our own. Like Earth, it has a thick atmosphere of mostly nitrogen (the only moon that has much of an atmosphere at all), and like Earth, it has weather, rain, rivers and seas. But on this world, when it rains, it rains gasoline. Hydrocarbon material drifts down like snow and is shaped into dunes by nitrogen winds. Rivers have carved canyons through mountains of frozen soot, and layers of ice float on subsurface oceans of ammonia. The prevailing surface temperature is minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit. A chemical sludge that optimistic astronomers call “prebiotic” creeps along under an oppressive brown sky. Besides Earth, Titan is the only world in the universe that is known to harbor liquid on its surface — with everything that could imply.

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