Fifty years after Apollo 11, NASA is gearing up for a whole new kind of moonshot. The agency’s next solar system exploration mission will send a drone-like rotorcraft to Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, NASA announced June 27 in a news teleconference.
“Titan is unlike any other place in our solar system, and the most comparable to early Earth,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said at the teleconference. The newly unveiled mission, dubbed Dragonfly, “will help us investigate organic chemistry, evaluate habitability and search for chemical signatures of past or even present life.” These investigations on Titan may offer new insight into the origins of life on Earth.
Selected from a pool of 12 proposals, Dragonfly is the fourth mission in NASA’s New Frontiers series, which previously launched the New Horizons, Juno and OSIRIS-REx missions to Pluto, Jupiter and the asteroid Bennu, respectively.
After launch in 2026, it will take Dragonfly about eight years to reach Titan. In 2034, the spacecraft is expected to touch down in the moon’s dune fields and fly to dozens of different locations.
On the ground, Dragonfly will use instruments like spectrometers to identify the terrain’s chemical composition and a seismometer to listen for Titanquakes. In the air, the rotorcraft will monitor atmospheric conditions and photograph Titan’s landscapes. With the moon’s hydrocarbon lakes, rivers and seas, these images are likely to reveal an “alien, yet very familiar kind of surface,” Curt Niebur, of NASA’s New Frontiers program, said in the teleconference.
Since Titan’s atmosphere is about four times as thick as Earth’s, and the moon has about one-seventh of Earth’s gravitational pull, “flying on Titan is actually easier than flying on Earth,” said Dragonfly principle investigator Elizabeth Turtle of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. Over the course of its 2½-year mission, Dragonfly will journey over 175 kilometers — almost twice the distance traveled by all the Mars rovers combined.
Dragonfly’s ultimate destination is the Selk impact crater, where there’s evidence of past liquid water and complex organic molecules. Scouting out the chemistry in this crater would offer a rare opportunity to directly observe what happens when you mix those key ingredients for life, Niebur said.