Researchers at Washington State University have constructed a replica of Titan’s oceans to test a NASA submarine for an eventual mission to Saturn’s largest moon. The scientists replicated ocean conditions, including temperatures of -300 degree Fahrenheit and a liquid content of methane and ethane rather than water. They were even able to reproduce the atmospheric cycle predicted to exist on the planet, which features ethane-methane snow and rain. This feature draws heightened interest from scientists, who note Earth-like similarities in Titan’s lakes, rivers, and clouds.
The research team constructed a chamber capable of holding the methane-ethane liquid mixture at very cold temperatures. To test the impact that such an environment would have on a NASA submarine, the team added a two-inch cylindrical cartridge heater that produces approximately the equivalent heat to a submarine. When a machine powered by heat is placed in these conditions, nitrogen bubbles begin to form. The researchers were particularly interested in how these nitrogen bubbles could affect the submarine’s functionality.
The team found it difficult to document their experiment due to challenging video conditions. They created a device that, under 60 pounds per square inch of pressure, incorporated a boroscope and camera to record images of the hostile sea. “Those aren’t the friendliest conditions,” said research leader Ian Richardson. “You have to come up with creative solutions.” The team managed to capture footage of methane-ethane rain and snow within the chamber. The researchers also discovered that methane and ethane freeze at lower temperatures under Titan’s conditions than expected. “That’s a big deal,’’ said Richardson. “That means you don’t have to worry about icebergs.”