NASA plans to send a drone to Saturn's largest moon

Pablo Tucker
June 28, 2019

NASA is sending a drone to explore Saturn's largest moon.

Like those missions, Dragonfly is expected to expand our view of distant objects in the solar system - in this case, Saturn's moon Titan, whose weird chemistry and thick atmosphere have intrigued scientists for years.

Dragonfly is scheduled to launch in 2026 and arrive in 2034.

"Titan is the only other place in the solar system known to have an Earthlike cycle of liquids flowing across its surface", Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, said in a tweet.

"The instruments on board will help us investigate organic chemistry, evaluate habitability and search for chemical signatures of past or even present life".

The first three missions in the New Frontiers directorate - New Horizons, Juno and OSIRIS-REx - took aim at Pluto, Jupiter and the asteroid Bennu, respectively.

Titan is a haze-covered world with a thick atmosphere. Now we can add Titan to the list of enigmatic worlds NASA will explore. There are clouds, liquid water, rivers, lakes and seas.

Titan is similar chemically to Earth before life evolved, the agency said. "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". The flying vehicle will be created to touch down in multiple locations, from dunes to the floor of an impact crater.

Dragonfly took advantage of 13 years worth of Cassini data to choose a calm weather period to land, along with a safe initial landing site and scientifically interesting targets.

But Titan also boasts temperatures below -290 degrees Fahrenheit and pressures that could suffocate a human's lungs.

Nasa said Dragonfly will first land on Titan's "Shangri-La" dune fields, similar to those in Namibia in southern Africa, making short flights around the region and collecting samples, before progressing to the Selk impact crater. "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". The mission is being led by Elizabeth Turtle of Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

New Frontiers refers to a series of missions, developed in 2002, to conduct compelling expeditions of our solar system. By the time its baseline mission is complete, the drone will have covered 108 miles, almost double the distance traveled by all Mars rovers combined.

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