NASA's Next Mission Takes Dragonfly Drone To Saturn's Moon, Titan

Pablo Tucker
June 29, 2019

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine revealed Thursday that NASA Solar System, the agency's planetary science division, would be expanding the limits of technology and embarking on an endeavor "unthinkable" years ago with its new, moon-based mission "Dragonfly". The Agency plans to send a drone helicopter the moon to search for the building blocks of life.

Dragonfly will launch in 2026 and arrive in 2034.

It is the only celestial body besides our planet known to have liquid rivers, lakes and seas on its surface, though these contain hydrocarbons like methane and ethane, not water.

In this regard, the associate administrator of the direction of scientific missions of NASA, Thomas Zurbuchen, explained that "Dragonfly" will examine a "variety of organic compounds, which are the building blocks of life and could offer lessons on the origin of life itself". "This cutting-edge mission would have been unthinkable even just a few years ago, but we're now ready for Dragonfly's wonderful flight".

NASA continued: "Its instruments will study how far prebiotic chemistry may have progressed".

Utilizing 13 years' of the Cassini spacecraft's data on Titan, the Dragonfly rotorcraft-lander will reportedly take "advantage of Titan's dense atmosphere and low gravity" and conduct a series of short flights around the Saturn moon to collect relevant samples.

The lander will eventually fly more than 108 miles (175 kilometers) - almost double the distance traveled to date by all the Mars rovers combined.

Journal Nature reported that, "Instead of liquid water, Titan has liquid methane".

While Titan is icy it is also similar to Earth in a number of ways. Other organics are formed in the atmosphere and fall like light snow.

Dragonfly was selected as part of the agency's New Frontiers program, which includes the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, Juno to Jupiter, and OSIRIS-REx to the asteroid Bennu.

Saturn's Titan is considered to be one of the most hospitable worlds in our solar system. Over the next 2.5 years, Dragonfly will fly across the surface of Titan about a dozen times and cover around 180Km (11 miles). It's also the second-largest moon in the solar system.

"We're absolutely thrilled and ready to jump on it and get going to go to Titan", Turtle said on a NASA webcast. Planetary missions developed by NASA's New Frontiers program are considered mid-tier, meaning they are capped at $1 billion and therefore less expensive than the agency's multibillion-dollar "flagship" missions, like the $2.5 billion Curiosity Mars rover - though more expensive than the agency's "Discovery" missions - like the Mars InSight lander now exploring Mars, which cost roughly $850 million, or the Dawn spacecraft orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres, which cost $500 million.

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