The Plan to Send a Submarine to Titan, Saturn's Largest Moon


Planetary scientists intend to send a submersible vessel to cruise the liquid hydrocarbon seas of Titan, Saturn's largest moon. The mission study is in its infancy, but its ambition and audacity harkens to the best of science fiction and the heady heights of the Space Race. As Ralph Lorenz of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) explains, "The virtue of this study is that you just need to say those words—Titan submarine—and everyone kind of gets that it's out there, it's interesting, and there's a lot of exciting potential."

At the 47th annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference held last month in The Woodlands, Texas, Lorenz—the Titan submarine's project scientist—led an open forum on the mission to solicit reactions from fellow space scientists to the mission's targets and objectives. The goal was to help the Titan sub researchers determine the best payload of scientific instruments for the craft.

Among the questions the scientists must eventually answer: How long should such a mission last? How far should the submarine go? How fast should it go? How much data might it try to return?

None of these questions are as simple as they might seem. Cruising speed and data transmission, for example, must be carefully balanced. Too much of one takes away from what little available power exists for the other. Shorter travel distances mean more data about fewer things; vice-versa for longer distances. If the vessel is going to be sticking around one area for a while, what instruments might be needed to really collect every scintilla of data possible? Then it's back to the drawing board with respect to balancing the use of available electricity. No problem in space exploration is trivial, and no decision can be made lightly. Add to all this the problems inherent to submersible vehicles—and that Titan's seas are cryogenic, or extremely cold—and you get some idea of how ambitious and exciting this mission really is.

"Titan lends itself to many mission configurations: orbiters, airplanes, floating capsules," Lorenz said at the forum. "What is it this enterprise could do that other platforms could not?"


Of all the worlds in the solar system, why this particular Saturnian moon? Why not Enceladus, with its subsurface ocean? Why not Triton, orbiting Neptune—the size of our own moon, but with a troposphere and active ice volcanoes?

"There are two overarching scientific reasons to explore Titan," Lorenz told mental_floss. First is that Titan is rich in "process": It has an active meteorology and a complex climate history that is apparent both in its landscape of dunes and in the apparent mineral deposits left behind due to evaporation on the margins of its seas. He adds secondly that Titan "is a world amazingly rich in organic materials—the stuff of life." It has an internal water ocean (and occasional surface exposures of liquid water by way of impacts from meteorites), which can interact with the abundant photochemical carbon- and nitrogen-bearing compounds that make up its dunes.

"Titan can inform us on the chemical processes that lead to life (as we know it, based on liquid water)," Lorenz said. "There is also the possibility, albeit a remote one, of alternate chemical systems executing the functions of life—metabolism, information storage and replication, etc.—in a completely different solvent: liquid methane."

Lorenz also offers a third, more psychological reason: "It is such a familiar yet exotic place, that we can see many of the things—waves and tidal currents, beaches, rainfall—that are so much a part of the human experience on Earth, yet occur with quite different circumstances and materials on Titan." For this reason, he said, exploring Titan may resonate with people on a visceral level in a way that other worlds may not.


Here is an actual problem that scientists have tackled, not as consultants for some sure-fire science fiction blockbuster, but rather, in order to put together a very real NASA mission: How do we launch a submarine into space, send it to another world, and drop it into an extraterrestrial lake?

As it turns out, a lot of work on the problem has already been done. The traditional shape of a submarine doesn't lend itself to the classic entry shell seen previously with the Mars landers. The Titan submarine team soon realized, however, that the submarine would fit quite nicely inside the cargo bay of a scaled-down space shuttle. Better still, DARPA—the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—has already built a scaled-down space shuttle, and it's flying today. It is called the X-37B—and the submarine would fit inside it.

The entry velocities for a mission to Titan would be the same as Earth orbital velocities, something the X-37B and its thermal protection can already handle. ("For [this phase of] the study, we just said, 'Sure, we could make that work,'" Lorenz explained at the forum.) Such an entry vehicle would be especially useful in that it could fly to a designated spot without dealing with the winds and consequent uncertainties that a typical parachute descent entry would have to overcome.

Next, the Titan team considered extracting the submarine from the back of the vehicle, much in the same way the U.S. Air Force pushes a MOAB from a C-130. They also looked at ditching tests conducted by NASA in the event that the space shuttle would ever have to land on water. A splashdown on Titan of their spacecraft, they found, would be quite forgiving, and if they attempted such a landing, they could simply flood the entry vehicle, let it sink, open the back, and let the submarine swim out into the sea. From there, the vehicle would conduct preliminary sea trials to discern maneuverability, and then get underway.


The submarine must obviously be able to communicate with Earth. For the purposes of this preliminary phase of a potential mission, Lorenz and his team have assumed direct communications from the submarine to the Earth—that is: pointing the Deep Space Network at Titan, blasting signals to the submarine, and listening closely for a response. This was the plan for the Titan Mare Explorer, a boat mission proposal that came close to being approved by NASA in 2012.

Envisioning a direct communications system—as opposed to a relay satellite around Titan (akin to a floating cell phone tower)—has allowed the team to focus for now on the submarine's technical details. "Everything is easier when you have an orbiter as a relay," said Lorenz, "but then you have a second element that's expensive."

But direct communication brings with it problems of its own. Because Titan's seas are near its poles, Earth is always low in the Titan sky. The idea of doing direct Earth transmissions imposes a restriction on when a submarine mission can actually launch, Lorenz said. "As we go into the mid-2020s and 2030s, the Earth is below the horizon of the Titan seas."

This means there's no line of sight between the Deep Space Network and the vehicle. A relay orbiter, not bound by horizons, would have no such problem.


"Oceanography is no longer just an Earth science," Lorenz said. Already, his colleagues are adapting terrestrial oceanographic models to Titan's seas. This involves taking those seas and making informed guesses about the bathymetry, or study of the sea beds; adding in Titan's orbit and tides; applying the winds from global circulation models and convection currents from solar heating of the sea; and evaluating what kinds of ocean currents develop. Such things are enormously difficult to model without in-situ data. But for the scientists, adapting the models seems not a question of if, but when. 

This phase of the Titan submarine study is funded by NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, and costs approximately $100,000. The team is preparing to carry forward a subset of this study's findings to a more comprehensive, half-million-dollar "phase II" analysis. NIAC emphasizes low TRL stuff—that is: "technology readiness level." That means NIAC mission concepts can proceed under the assumption of reasonable advances in technology (e.g., more efficient power sources) that will be available by the time such missions actually fly.

So when might this mission happen? If the Titan submarine is indeed built for direct communications (as opposed to an orbital relay), it will need a line of sight between the Titan sea and the Earth. That means 2040 at the earliest, when Earth again appears over the horizon of Kraken Mare. (Travel times to Titan will depend on the type of rocket used to launch the mission.) On the other hand, if the mission builds serious momentum and money is promised by NASA for a communications relay orbiter, the timetable might look much more favorable to a Titan splashdown years earlier.

A lot of that depends on NASA's budgetary environment. The agency passed over a Titan watercraft (the Titan Mare Explorer) in 2012, to the dismay of many. Would they do so again? As exciting as rovers are on Mars, the sound of methane waves lapping against a surfaced submarine, and the sight of Saturn, massive and hanging near in the sky, its rings reaching across the horizon, might be even more exciting. One imagines our species finally ready to zip away from the Earth the way we once leapt down from trees and, before that, clawed out of oceans.


The mission as currently conceived has the submarine splashing down in Kraken Mare, whose watery footprint is more than 154,000 square miles and thought to be nearly 1000 feet deep, to explore over the span of 90 Earth days. As it tours the coastline for some 1100 miles in all, it will collect samples, spectral data, and imagery.

Different regions would be conducive to different lines of scientific investigation. Ligeia Mare, for example, is a large lake to the north of the upper Kraken Mare. In the same way that the Baltic Sea (on Earth) drains into the North Sea, and the Black Sea drains into the Mediterranean, so too might Ligeia drain into Kraken. This would allow scientists to determine if the compositions of the two seas are different. The sub could cruise to the channel and "sniff" the water from Ligeia to check. Once the primary mission is complete, the submarine could travel the channel connecting the northern Kraken sea (Kraken-1) to its southern body (Kraken-2). After crossing through Seldon Fretum ("the Throat of Kraken-2"), it would begin a possible second mission.  

NASA Glenn Research Center

The "tour" design of the mission motivated the designation of inlets and islands in Titan's seas. "Nobody ever needed to name them," Lorenz said, "but when you start talking about, 'Oh, the inlet next to the thing that connects Kraken and Ligeia,' it gets awkward, so we came up with names."  

The convention established by the team has Titan's seas named after sea monsters (e.g. Kraken Mare); lakes after Earth lakes ("I can see some confusion arising from that in the future," joked Lorenz); islands after mythical islands; and channels after characters in the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. 

This is a small thing, and yet glorious. We have to name tiny islands on Titan to make its exploration easier and shed light on the moon's liquid mysteries. As Asimov himself has been quoted, "There is a single light of science, and to brighten it anywhere is to brighten it everywhere."

15 Podcasts That Will Make You Feel Smarter

It's easy to feel overwhelmed by all the podcast options out there, but narrowing down your choices to the titles that will teach you something while you listen is a good place to start. If you're interested in learning more about philosophy, science, linguistics, or history, here are podcasts to add to your queue.


The Habitat is the closest you can get to listening to a podcast recorded on Mars. At the start of the series, five strangers enter a dome in a remote part of Hawaii meant to simulate a future Mars habitat. Every part of their lives over the next year, from the food they eat to the spacesuits they wear when they step outside, is designed to mimic the conditions astronauts will face if they ever reach the red planet. The experiment was a way for NASA to test plans for a manned mission to Mars without leaving Earth. The podcast, which is produced by Gimlet media and hosted by science writer Lynn Levy, ends up unfolding like a season of the Real World with a science fiction twist.


Can’t pick a topic to educate yourself on? Stuff You Should Know from How Stuff Works is the podcast for you. In past episodes, hosts Chuck Bryant and Josh Clark (both writers at How Stuff Works) have discussed narwhals, Frida Kahlo, LSD, Pompeii, hoarding, and Ponzi schemes. And with three episodes released a week, you won’t go long without learning about a new subject.


Language nerds will find a kindred spirit in Helen Zaltzman. In each episode of her Radiotopia podcast The Allusionist, the former student of Latin, French, and Old English guides listeners through the exciting world of linguistics. Past topics include swearing, small talk, and the differences between British and American English.


Listening to all of Philosophize This! is cheaper than taking a philosophy class—and likely more entertaining. In each episode, host Stephen West covers different thinkers and ideas from philosophy history in an approachable and informative way. The show proceeds in chronological order, starting with the pre-Socratic era and leading up most recently to Jacques Derrida.


In 2016, Radiolab, one of the most popular and well-established educational podcasts out there, launched a show called More Perfect. Led by Radiolab host Jad Abumrad, each episode visits a different Supreme Court case or event that helped shape the highest court in the land. Because of that, the podcast ends up being about a lot more than just the Supreme Court, exploring topics like police brutality, gender equality, and free speech online.


The Watergate scandal was such a important chapter in American history that it has its own suffix—but when asked to summarize the events, many people may draw a blank. Slow Burn, a podcast from Slate, gives listeners a refresher. In eight episodes, host Leon Neyfakh tells the story of the Nixon’s demise as it unfolded, all while asking whether or not citizens would be able to recognize a Watergate-sized scandal if it happened today.


Instead of using a broad scope to examine World War II, the Washington Post podcast Letters From War focuses on hundreds of letters exchanged by four brothers fighting in the Pacific during the period. Living U.S. military veterans tell the sibling's story while reflecting on their own experiences with war.


Just because you’re a grown-up doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the soothing sound of LeVar Burton’s voice reading to you. The former host of Reading Rainbow now hosts LeVar Burton Reads, a podcast from Stitcher aimed at adults. In each episode, he picks a different piece of short fiction to narrate: Just settle into a comfortable spot and listen to him tell stories by authors like Haruki Murakami, Octavia Butler, and Ursula K. Le Guin.


Brains On! is an educational podcast for young audiences, but adults have something to gain from listening as well. Every week, host Molly Bloom is joined by a new kid co-host who helps her explore a different topic. Tune in for answers to questions like "What makes paint stick?" and "How do animals breathe underwater?"


There’s a lot of misinformation out there—if you’re determined to sort out fact from fiction, it can be hard to know where to start. The team of “friendly fact checkers” at the Science Vs podcast from Gimlet is here to help. GMOs, meditation, birth control, Bigfoot—these are just a few of the topics that are touched upon in the weekly show. The goal of each episode is to replace any preconceived notions you have with hard science.


No one knows for sure what the future holds, but Flash Forward lays out the more interesting possibilities. Some of the potential futures that host and producer Rose Eveleth explores are more probable than others (a future where no one knows which news sources to trust isn’t hard to imagine; one where space pirates drag a second moon into orbit perhaps is), but each one is built on real science.


What motivates the everyday choices we make? That’s the question Shankar Vedantam tries to answer on the NPR podcast Hidden Brain. The show looks at how various unconscious patterns shape our lives, like what we wear and who we choose to spend time with.


The fact that it’s hosted by Mental Floss founders Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur isn’t the only reason we love Part-Time Genius. The podcast from How Stuff Works wades into topics you didn’t know you were curious about, like the origins of Nickelodeon and the hidden secrets at the Vatican. Each episode will leave you feeling educated and entertained at the same time.


It’s a big universe out there—if you want to learn as much about it as possible, start with Astronomy Cast. Fraser Cain, publisher of the popular site Universe Today, and Dr. Pamela L. Gay, director of the virtual research facility CosmoQuest, host the podcast. They cover a wide range of topics, from the animals we’ve sent to orbit to the color of the universe.


The Science of Happiness podcast from PRI is here to improve your life, one 20-minute episode at a time. Science has proven that adopting certain practices, like mindfulness and gratitude, can make us happier—as does letting go of less unhealthy patterns like grudges and stressful thinking. With award-winning professor Dacher Keltner as your host, you can learn how to incorporate these science-backed strategies for happiness into your own life.

ESO, A. Müller et al.
Here's the First Confirmed Image of a Planet Being Born
ESO, A. Müller et al.
ESO, A. Müller et al.

One of the newest landmarks in the observable universe has finally been captured, according to the European Southern Observatory. The image, snapped at its Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, marks the first time a newborn planet has been seen as it forms. 

The image was documented by SPHERE, an instrument at the VLT that's built to identify exoplanets. It shows a planet, dubbed PDS 70b, taking shape in the disc of gas and star dust surrounding the young dwarf star PDS 70. In the past, astronomers have caught glimpses of what may have been new planets forming, but until now it had been impossible to tell whether such images just showed shapes in the dust or the beginnings of true planet formation. The results of the research will be shared in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics [PDF].

This latest cornograph (an image that blocks the light of a star to make its surroundings visible) depicts the new planet clearly as a bright blob beside the black star. The two bodies may look close in the photo, but PDS 70b is roughly 1.8 billion miles from PDS 70, or the distance of Uranus to the Sun. SPHERE also recorded the planet's brightness at different wavelengths. Based on information gathered from the instrument, a team of scientists led by Miriam Keppler of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy says that PDS 70b is a gas giant a few times the mass of Jupiter with a surface temperature around 1830°F and a cloudy atmosphere.

Astronomers known that planets form from solar clouds which stars leave behind when they come into a being, but until now, the details surrounding the phenomena have been mysterious. “Keppler’s results give us a new window onto the complex and poorly understood early stages of planetary evolution,” astronomer André Müller said in a press release. “We needed to observe a planet in a young star’s disc to really understand the processes behind planet formation.”

This is just the latest history-making image captured by the ESO's Very Large Telescope. In the last 20 years, it has documented nebulae, light from gravitational waves, and interacting galaxies.


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