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

Muriel Hammond
June 30, 2019

NASA has revealed plans to return to Saturn's largest moon, Titan, with the nuclear-powered quadcopter drone-lander Dragonfly.

APL said Thursday it will lead a consortium to launch the Dragonfly rotocraft lander by 2026 to assess Titan's atmosphere and collect samples from its surface in efforts to help researchers study potentially habitable elements and probiotic progression in areas where liquid water once existed. In the search for signs of life, NASA will send a multi-rotor vehicle called "Dragonfly" to explore the richly organic world. In all, it's to be expected Dragonfly will fly more than 108 miles (175 km) on the surface of Titan. It also carries a mass spectrometer, allowing it to analyze in detail the materials it encounters across Titan's surface and determine their chemical makeup.

Titan is the only moon in the solar system with an atmosphere, which is why NASA scientists say it is the most comparable to Earth.

Dragonfly will aim for a 2.7-year initial mission, with dozens of landing sites on the menu.

Scientists already know a bit about Titan from the NASA/ESA Cassini-Huygens mission. That leaves open the possibility that there is water-based life on Titan that possibly formed in a similar way it formed on Earth.

In addition to a camera, Dragonfly will carry an assortment of scientific instruments: spectrometers to study Titan's composition; a suite of meteorology sensors; and even a seismometer to detect titanquakes when it lands on the ground.

Describing Titan, the late astrophysicist Carl Sagan once wrote: "The molecules that have been raining down like manna from heaven for the last 4bn years might still be there, largely unaltered, deep-frozen, awaiting the chemists from Earth". Its remarkable to think of this rotorcraft flying miles and miles across the organic sand dunes of Saturns 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", said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's associate administrator for science. New Frontiers supports missions that have been identified as top solar system exploration priorities by the planetary community.

An image of four moons of Saturn passing in front of their parent planet in seen this image taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope February 24, 2009 and released by NASA March 17, 2009.

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