NASA is going to send a drone called Dragonfly to Saturn’s largest moon Titan. It is planning to launch in 2026 and land on Titan in 2034.
The Dragonfly mission falls under NASA’s New Frontiers programme, which began a selection process began with 12 proposals in April 2017, and was narrowed to just two that December: Dragonfly and the Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return (CAESAR) mission, a plan to revisit the asteroid 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko – the same one that the Rosetta spacecraft visited from 2014 to 2016 – and return a sample of its dust to Earth for further study.
Both mission teams were given $4 million to develop their concepts. Now, the Dragonfly researchers will get an additional $850 million to actually build the spacecraft, along with a rocket ride to Titan.
The mission will consist of a quadcopter about a metre high and a three metres across, powered by plutonium. Facilitated by Titan’s thick, orange haze and low gravity, the drone will use its rotors to hop around the surface, covering far more ground than a rover could and taking valuable data from multiple distinct locations.
“These ingredients that we know are necessary for the development of life as we know it are sitting on the surface of Titan, they’ve been doing chemistry experiments basically for hundreds of millions of years, and Dragonfly is designed to go pick up the results of those experiments and study them,” Dragonfly team leader Elizabeth Turtle said during the announcement on 27 June.
Titan is an interesting destination because it is the only other world we’ve seen with liquid on its surface. It has glistening lakes and seas of liquid methane and ethane. That liquid, combined with complex molecules that rain down from the atmosphere, make it one of the best places in the solar system to look for life.
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