Grant Eastland –

Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division, Keyport, Test and Evaluation Department.
Keyport, Washington 98345
United States

Popular version of 4aPAa12 – Considerations of undersea exploration of an extraterrestrial ocean
Presented at the 184 ASA Meeting
Read the abstract at

As we venture out beyond our home planet to explore our neighbors in our solar system, we have encountered the most extreme environments we could have imagined that provide some of greatest engineering challenges. Probes and landers have measured and experienced dangerous temperatures, atmospheres, and surfaces that would be deadly for human exploration. However, no extraterrestrial ocean environments have been studied beyond observation, which are the mostly unexplored portions of our planet. Remarkably, pass-by planetary probes have found the possible existence of oceans on two of Jupiter’s moons Europa and Ganymede and the existence of a potential ocean, as well as lakes and rivers on Titan, a moon of Saturn. Jupiter’s moon Europa could have a saltwater ocean that could be between 60 and 90 miles deep, covered in up to 15 miles of ice. The deepest point in Earth’s Ocean is a maximum of about 7.5 miles for comparison about 10 to 15 times shallower. Those extreme pressures experienced at that depth would be difficult to withstand with current technology and acoustic propagation could potentially behave differently also. At those pressures, water might not freeze above 8°F (~260 K), causing liquid water at temperatures not seen in our oceans. The effects of this would be found in the speed of sound, which are shown in Figure 1 through a creative and imaginative modelling scheme numerically simulated. The methods used were a mixture of using Earth data with predictive speculation, and physical intuition.

Figure 1. Imaginative scientific freedom determining the speed of sound in the deep ocean on Europa beneath a 30 km ice sheet. The water stays liquid down to potentially 260 K (8 degrees F), heated by currently an unknown mechanism probably related to Jupiter’s gravitational pull.

On Titan, a moon of Saturn, there are lakes and rivers of hydrocarbons like Methane and Ethane. For these compounds to be liquid, the temperature would have to be about -297°F. We know how sound interacts with Methane on Earth, because it is a gas for our conditions, but we would have to get it to cryogenic temperatures to study the acoustics as a liquid. We would have to build systems that could swim around in such temperatures to explore what is underneath. At liquid water temperatures, like potentially some of the extraterrestrial oceans predicted to exist, conditions may still be amenable to life. But to discover that life will require independent systems, making measurements and gathering information for humans to see through the eyes of our technology. The drive to explore extreme ocean environments could provide evidence of life beyond Earth, since where there is water, life is possible.

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