Dragonfly Mission: NASA To Send Drone To Titan Saturn’s Largest Moon

ragonfly Mission overview, showing conceptions of entry, descent, landing, surface operations, and flight at Titan. Image: Johns Hopkins APL

NASA announced Thursday that it would be sending a spacecraft on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, to perform a visual probe on its surface. The Dragonfly mission will identify the moon’s capability to produce and host life, as researchers hope for to unravel.

The mission codenamed Dragonfly after the spacecraft that will be used to send over to Titan. It is the creation of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) team.

Furthermore, Dragonfly will be a drone-like spacecraft that will be able to hop across the moon’s surface similar to drones seen here on Earth. This will be enabled because, like Earth, Titan has a thick atmosphere that’s mainly comprised of Nitrogen; in fact, it is the only moon other than Earth to have this composition. Other elements that fill up Titan’s atmosphere, which is twice as thick than Earth’s, are methane and hydrogen.

Dragonfly, a dual-quadrotor drone, will be equipped with a mass spectrometer, gamma-ray spectrometer, and cameras that will be able to produce microscopic and panoramic images.

As estimated, Dragonfly will be able to continue taking images for a 2-year life span once it lands on Titan. Its eight rotors will help it perform short flights once every Titan day (about 16 Earth days). According to its initial designs, the craft will be able to propel itself at about 20 miles per hour and fly to altitudes of a little over 2 miles. It will be powered by the heat produced by the decay of plutonium-238.

NASA claims that because of Dragonfly’s drone-like structure, it will cover more surface area within days than any other rover could do in years. The agency said that it would be able to perform around 25 hops and fly a total distance of approximately 180 kilometers (110 miles).

“With the Dragonfly mission, Nasa will once again do what no one else can do,” said Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine.

“Visiting this mysterious ocean world could revolutionize what we know about life in the universe. This cutting-edge mission would have been unthinkable even just a few years ago, but we’re now ready for Dragonfly’s amazing flight.”

In particular, researchers have deduced that Titan contains a planet-wide ocean that’s mainly composed of methane that could potentially or would have had the ability to harbor life similar to pre-microbial Earth. Furthermore, because of the moon’s nitrogen- and methane-rich atmosphere, it provides the necessary ingredients for creating the complex organic molecules called tholins that, when exposed to water on Titan’s surface, may yield amino acids—the building blocks of life.

Additionally, Titan contains thick carbon-rich material that once interacted with liquid water, which may have produced a primordial goop (i.e., prebiotic chemistry) not unlike the one that eventually spawned life on Earth.

This planet-wide ocean is covered by water-ice crust along with the entire moon’s surface because of the freezing temperatures with lows at -300 degrees Fahrenheit. There are also lakes and rivers, canyons, and possibly liquid water. Its surface is subject to intense dust storms and rain storms consisting of liquid methane.

Specifically, the probe will explore the Selk impact crater, which may have once held liquid water and complex organics.

“Titan is unlike any other place in the solar system, and Dragonfly is like no other mission,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Nasa’s associate administrator for science at the agency’s headquarters in Washington.

“It’s remarkable to think of this rotorcraft flying miles and miles across the organic sand dunes of Saturn’s largest moon, exploring the processes that shape this extraordinary environment. Dragonfly will visit a world filled with a wide variety of organic compounds, which are the building blocks of life and could teach us about the origin of life itself.”

Although Dragonfly was a concept that started in 2000, it did not receive its push until 2017 when NASA granted the project as part of the two New Frontiers program.

The New Frontiers program was a NASA project that started way back in 2003 to fund solar system exploration missions with a cost cap of $850 million. Prior to Dragonfly, New Frontiers launched three other missions: New Horizons, a mission to Pluto and the Kuiper belt; Juno, a mission to Jupiter; and OSIRIS-REx, which will return a sample from an asteroid. 

However, we won’t be seeing images of Titan’s surface just yet. The mission is not set to launch until 2026 and until then it will take an 8-year journey to the moon on 2034.

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