NASA Tests Methane Ocean Submarine to Find Alien Life on Saturn's Moon Titan
Titan is one of the most intriguing places in the solar system.
Saturn's icy moon shares a lot of things in common with Earth, such as its liquid oceans which could potentially play host to alien life.
There's just one problem with exploring them more thoroughly (apart, of course, from the trivial matter of actually getting an exploration crew to the moon). Titan is very cold, and its oceans, which are made of liquid methane, clock in at around -300 degrees Fahrenheit.
This cold environment is going to be understandably difficult for any exploration capsule to navigate through, should we eventually manage to launch a probe to Titan's moon. It's also going to be a real pain to record video, as our current electronic cameras aren't designed to operate at such low temperatures.
A team at Washington State University are looking to solve these problems, and they think they've found a solution both to moving effortlessly through the liquid oceans and filming while on Titan. The scientists have constructed a submarine that could potentially function within an extremely cold liquid methane environment.
In order to test their creation, the team has synthesized a little slice of Titan right here on planet Earth.
According to Ian Richardson, the lead scientist on this new study:
The team made a special vat of super-cooled liquid methane and mixed in other elements that would be present within Titan's oceans. This then allowed them to test their submarine, seeing how it would react in the real environment.
The problem with moving through the liquid methane oceans of Titan is that if the submarine gives off any heat, it'll cause nitrogen bubbles to form in the liquid, which will make it more difficult to navigate. Scientists are still looking for a good solution to this problem, but for the moment, their fake Titan experiment has proven that at the temperatures that would be encountered on the moon, there won't be any danger of icebergs - the methane seas will be warm enough for the submarines to make progress, even if things are going to move a lot slower than they'd like.
It's also taken some experimentation, but the team has also found a way to make their cameras record images at such low temperatures. These pictures aren't perfect yet—in fact, they're incredibly blurry—but the fact that they're possible at all means that there's room for a more advanced submarine prototype to improve on what's been achieved here.
Perhaps the most useful part of this experiment has been learning how the oceans on Titan would behave if a submarine attempts to travel through them. Based on this research (even the unfortunate business with the nitrogen bubbles), scientists can work to improve their designs and overcome the challenges that will be present when we finally get a probe to Titan.
As for what we'll find when we try photographing the local environments, here's hoping there'll be something interesting hiding in the depths of the methane seas that'll make this all worth the effort.