The hunt for alien life, as we have covered here before on the blog, hasn't lost any steam. In late 2017, NASA confirmed the two finalist projects that would be part of its "New Frontiers" program. The first will be named CAESAR and will focus on taking and returning with a sample from the nucleus of a comet. However, the second project, Dragonfly, might be of even more interest to AL listeners. Dragonfly aims to use a drone-like rotorcraft to study the prebiotic chemistry and potential of habilitation on Titan, Saturn's largest moon.
Both will be funded with $4 million to further work on their idea and in 2019 NASA will choose one to build and launch (likely in the mid 20s). However, if Dragonfly is chosen it wouldn't even be able to arrive at Titan until 2034(ish).
Now, back to Dragonfly. The project is led by Elizabeth (Zibi) Turtle who is a planetary scientist with John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Why Titan? According to what scientists have learned about Titan, it has an "Earth-like landscape of rivers and lakes filled with liquid methane." It also featured hydrocarbon seas that "may contain amino acids and other interesting molecules."
The Dragonfly researchers succinctly sum up the importance of focusing on Titan on their website, writing: "Titan is an ocean world, and the only moon in our Solar System with a dense atmosphere, which supports an Earth-like hydrological cycle of methane clouds, rain, and liquid flowing across the surface to fill lakes and seas.”
The rotorcraft that would be built for Dragonfly would take samples from air and ground armed with a full suite of spectrometers, drills, and cameras for testing and analysis. It would be able to travel up to 100 kilometers between different sites and would also be able to recharge batteries. This would give the machine a relatively long life span. Turtle says the additional time would allow the team to, "evaluate how far prebiotic chemistry has progressed in an environment where we know we have the ingredients for life."
The above image is a natural color of the crescent Titan was taken on April 19, 2015. It is a public domain image.