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NASA wants to send a submarine to Saturn's moon Titan

By Brooks Hays

WASHINGTON, Feb. 16 (UPI) -- The seas of Titan, Saturn's largest moon, are no place for astronauts. The frigid bodies of liquified natural gas are a study in inhabitability. But scientists suggest it's possible some strange forms of life exist under the of icy surface of Kraken Mare, Titan's largest sea.

To learn more about this unique world -- and to probe Titan's liquid environs for signs of life -- engineers at NASA are planning to send a robotic submarine there in the future. Earlier this year, the space agency released two videos that revealed the concept in animated detail. And more recently, NASA published an info sheet on the hypothetical submarine mission.

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"We have developed a practical design for a robot submersible to explore this exotic environment, drawing on experience in terrestrial AUVs/UUVs as well as spacecraft systems," NASA wrote in a recent summary.

The submarine, which engineers say would weigh a single ton, would likely be nuclear-powered. The submarine's unique shape would make the traditional strategies for depositing robotic landers and rovers on foreign planets unwise. Instead, the submarine drone would likely need to be delivered by a sort of space plane capable of soft water landing.

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Once in the seas of Titan, the sub would go about analyzing the chemistry of Kraken Mare. It could dive down to the seabed, where scientists predict there might be active hydrothermal vents.

"Measurement of the trace organic components of the sea, which perhaps may exhibit prebiotic chemical evolution, will be an important objective, and a benthic sampler would acquire and analyze sediment from the seabed," researchers wrote, alluding to the possible presence of unique life forms.

The drone could also collect data on the sea's tides, as well as study its shoreline and disappearing islands while cruising along the sea's surface.

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The designs and discussions surrounding the sub mission are all quite preliminary, as researchers don't see such a feat being executed until at least 2047. Scientists at NASA will share their plans in further detail at the 46th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference next month in Texas.

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