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NASA Wants Drones and Robo-Subs to Explore Saturn's Moon Titan

The agency just funded early proposals to turn science fiction into science fact.
Image: NASA

The liquid methane lakes and hazy atmosphere of Saturn's moon, Titan, have been an enticing place to study for quite some time now. Problem is, how do you manage to do it?

With robotic submarines and autonomous drones, maybe.

This afternoon, NASA released its selection of 12 proposals it will study under Phase I of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program. The program is pretty incredible in that it’s designed to turn science fiction into science fact through technological developments. Two newly funded projects, the Titan Submarine and the Titan Aerial Daughtercraft, propose to use some pretty exciting technologies on the planet's largest moon.

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Titan is a fascinating place as it’s the only other body in the solar system with liquid lakes on its surface. But they aren’t water lakes, like we have on Earth. Titan’s seas are made of hydrocarbons, liquid methane, and ethane that rain down over the moon’s dunes and fields. It’s an environment that some scientists even think might be a natural laboratory to help explain how life arose on our planet.

Here's how the submarine, proposed by NASA's Glenn Research Center, could work explore Kraken Mare, Titan's largest Northern Sea, which sprawls over 620 miles and reaches depths of around 1,000 feet.

The proposed vehicle would be equipped to study a large number of oceanographic phenomena autonomously; it takes about an hour and 24 minutes for a radio signal to travel from the Earth to Saturn so manually controlling it from Earth wouldn’t be an option. The sub would be able to measure the chemical composition of the liquid, surface, and subsurface currents; investigate mixing and layering in liquid columns, tides, wind, and waves; and also measure bottom features and composition. These are the kinds of measurements that can only be done in situ with specifically designed instruments.

As you can see, these projects are in the VERY early stages. Image: NASA

Like most things NASA creates, developing the Titan Submarine will create a host of new technologies NASA could apply to other missions and spacecraft. Particularly other planetary submersibles that could eventually explore the subsurface oceans of Europa.

NASA also funded more research on the Titan Aerial Daughtercraft, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory project that would study the moon's surface and atmosphere.

The mission would deploy several small rotorcraft weighing less than 25 pounds from a balloon or lander and send them out to acquire close-up, high resolution images and mapping data of the surface. The rotorcraft could then land at different locations and gather microscopic images. The drones could also gather samples of solid and liquid material, return them to the mothership for analysis, and send the data back to Earth. And, if the mothership has a power source on board, like a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, the rotorcraft could make multiple sorties. It’s an exciting mission that’s possible thanks to recent advances in autonomous navigation and the miniaturization of sensors, processors, and sampling devices.

We’ve only landed on Titan once.The ESA’s Huygens probe reached Titan’s surface in 2005, but it was a lander and not a rover meaning its exploration of the surface was limited to its landing site.

Of course, these are just early proposals at this point: The teams behind these Phase I NIAC proposals each receive about $100,000 to conduct a nine-month initial concept study. If this basic feasibility study is successful, teams behind the proposals can apply for further funding, and eventually, the project could become a go. There's certainly no guarantee they'll ever happen, but these are the kind of big-picture, game-changing technology NASA needs to be working on if it wants to truly understand our Solar System.