See the submarine NASA wants to send to Saturn's moon Titan

Spaceships are great, but to explore the weird world that is Titan, a space sub might make more sense. Fortunately, NASA is already working on a design.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
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Eric Mack
2 min read

Boldly going where no drone has gone before... into Titan's methane seas. Video screenshot by Eric Mack/CNET

I think we can now officially say that NASA's real-life mission concepts have met, if not exceeded, the wildest dreams of Jules Verne and the other early futurists. Verne saw us flying around the world, traveling to the center of the Earth (not a great idea, it turns out) and to the moon, but I bet he never imagined that just 110 years after his death, we'd be working on a robot submarine to probe the flammable seas of a distant world.

Truth can be stranger than fiction, indeed.

Earlier this month, NASA published the below video introducing its concept submarine designed to explore Kraken Mare, one of the methane seas on Titan, the remarkably strange moon circling Saturn. Even if it were possible for humans to go swimming in Titan's seas, it might not be advisable. It would be something like swimming in a freezing ocean of liquefied natural gas.

Clearly, this is a mission meant for a drone, specifically a nuclear-powered, single-ton robotic submarine equipped with a seafloor camera and sampling system as described in a brief (PDF) on the concept posted online.

Getting the sub to Titan presents a bit of challenge since it won't fit into the sphere-cone shaped landers that have typically been used for planetary exploration in the past. However, it could fit into a space plane like Boeing's X-37, which was recently orbiting the Earth for some sort of classified, likely spy-ish US Air Force mission. The space plane would make a soft water landing on Kraken Mare and jettison the sub, or possibly drop it at low altitude via a parachute.

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In addition to floating or diving around checking out the chemistry of Titan's sea and sea floor composition, the sub could also study the moon's tides, weather, shoreline, disappearing islands and keep an eye out for any evidence of really weird life forms that like to hang out in super chilly, gassy locales.

The Titan sub concept is very preliminary at this point, but there's plenty of time to work on it. The team behind it anticipates that it might not splashdown until sometime around 2047.