The Dragonfly is going to land...eventually, and on Titan. NASA’s newest mission is searching for life on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Why a moon? Well, although Titan is a moon and orbits Saturn...it actually behaves and seems to have more similarities to Earth than one might initially guess. Titan is larger than Mercury, has evidence of hydrocarbons, has lakes and oceans...and even rain! Unlike Earth, though, the liquid on this planet is primarily liquid methane.
The Dragonfly will be unmanned and will garner its power from a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, which will run on radioactive decay from a reserve of plutonium-238. Sounds a little science-fiction-y? Of course it does, we’re searching for life! The Dragonfly will be able to remain warm and powered for months thanks to the way the RTG is set up, as well as gather surface composition information. The mission will be led by Elizabeth Turtle, a planetary scientist.
Beginning in 2026, for roughly two years, it is planned that the Dragonfly will travel over 175 kilometers (over twice the distance all of the Mars rovers have ever covered) and discover if their may be water, and even life, in the ice volcanoes and subsurfaces of Titan.
Unlike the Mars Rover, the Dragonfly, as its name suggests, is more of a flier. It will be able to fly around the surface of Titan and take samples of the sand on the planet in various places. Because of Titan’s incredibly dense atmosphere, flying is actually easier!
Thomas Zurbuchen, a NASA associate administrator, said “Titan is unlike any other place in the solar system, and Dragonfly is like no other mission. It’s remarkable to think of this rotorcraft flying miles and miles across the organic sand dunes of Saturn’s 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.”
How will it collect the samples? It won’t have a robotic arms but it will have an instrument located on its undercarriage that will cover the ground with neutron radiation. Once this is done, it will use gamma rays released to learn about and differentiate between terrain types. Dragonfly’s landing skids will also carry a drill that is capable of taking samples. These samples will be fed through a pneumatic tube to a mass spectrometer that will analyze their composition.
Science Magazine notes, “The moon’s stew of organic molecules and water, many scientists believe, could have resulted in reactions to create amino acids and the bases used to build DNA’s double helix. It’s as if Titan has been conducting experiments on life formation for millions of years, Turtle says. “Dragonfly is designed to go pick up the results of those experiments and study them.”
The journey to Titan will be about 8 years so it won’t be landing until 2034...and although that seems quite far, in terms of space travel it is the blink of an eye to make such a monumental journey.
This illustration shows NASA’s Dragonfly rotorcraft-lander approaching a site on Saturn’s exotic moon, Titan. Taking advantage of Titan’s dense atmosphere and low gravity, Dragonfly will explore dozens of locations across the icy world, sampling and measuring the compositions of Titan's organic surface materials to characterize the habitability of Titan’s environment and investigate the progression of prebiotic chemistry.