Artist’s idea of the Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s moon Titan. Credit score: NASA
NASA officers introduced that the company will transfer ahead with the event of a plutonium-powered robotic quadcopter drone to discover Saturn’s moon Titan, a hazy world lined with dunes and methane lakes that scientists say is paying homage to the traditional Earth.
The Dragonfly mission will launch in 2026 and attain Titan in 2034, descend via its thick environment and deploy a rotorcraft to make a number of hops throughout the moon’s alien floor over a 2.7-year mission, surveying dune fields and craters.
“Titan is a really Earth-like place, although the supplies are very totally different at this very low temperature, and the bedrock is water ice and the sand dunes are product of natural sand grains, and the liquid on the floor is liquid methane,” stated Elizabeth Turtle, principal investigator for the Dragonfly mission on the Johns Hopkins College Utilized Physics Laboratory.”
Most of what scientists learn about Titan got here from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft and a European House Company probe named Huygens, which made the primary touchdown on Saturn’s largest moon in 2005.
Cassini made 127 flybys of Titan in its 13-year tour of Saturn earlier than its mission led to September 2017, unveiling the moon’s floor for the primary time to see lakes of methane with rugged shorelines, streams and sand dunes. NASA’s Voyager probes couldn’t see via Titan’s hazy veneer after they flew by Saturn in 1980 and 1981.
“One of many nice issues about Dragonfly is with the cameras it has trying ahead and downward, as Dragonfly is flying over the floor, it’s going to be taking photos and sending them again to Earth,” stated Curt Niebur, lead programme scientist for NASA’s line of New Frontiers missions. “So we are going to truly get the expertise of flying together with Dragonfly, trying down at this alien, but very acquainted type of floor that has these rivers and mountains.
“I believe that’s going to be an amazing expertise for the general public, and I believe everyone’s actually going to take pleasure in it,” Niebur stated.
The colourful globe of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, passes in entrance of the planet and its rings on this true colour snapshot from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Credit score: NASA/JPL-Caltech/House Science Institute
Titan’s thick environment makes getting all the way down to the bottom tough, however as soon as there, Titan’s soupy environment will make for a wonderful flying atmosphere, scientists stated.
“Flying on Titan is definitely simpler than flying on Earth,” Turtle stated. “The environment is 4 occasions denser, on the floor, than the environment on the floor of Earth, and (Titan’s) gravity is a few seventh of the gravity right here on Earth. So it’s truly simpler to fly on Titan. In the event you placed on wings, you’d have the ability to fly on Titan.”
Cassini found climate methods on Titan, together with rain storms and winds that seem to generate waves within the methane lakes.
“You get the rain coming down, gathering into actually bigger lakes, the dimensions of Earth’s Nice Lakes, crammed to nice depth with all this liquid methane. and it actually creates a type of climate cycle, similar to we’ve on Earth, simply with out the liquid water,” Niebur stated.
However many questions on Titan stay unanswered. It’s the Photo voltaic System’s solely moon with a dense environment — made primarily of nitrogen — however Titan’s orange haze hides its floor from typical cameras. Cassini peered via the environment with an imaging radar to disclose enormous land lots, oceans and different floor options.
The temperature at Titan’s floor hovers round -184 levels Celsius (-300 levels Fahrenheit), a lot too chilly for liquid water on the floor. However there may be proof that Titan harbours an underground ocean of liquid water.
The Dragonfly drone will carry cameras, drills, seismic and climate sensors, and spectrometers to look at the composition of Titan’s rocks and soil, gathering 4 fundamental sorts of measurements. Vacuum-like suction gadgets on the craft’s touchdown skids will suck up floor materials for evaluation in an on-board miniature oven, which is able to sense any natural compounds or biosignatures within the soil.
A plutonium energy supply, often called a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, or MMRTG, will cost the craft’s battery to energy the devices, eight electrically-driven rotors and a high-gain antenna to beam knowledge on to Earth.
“What actually excites me about this mission is the truth that Titan has all the key components wanted for all times,” stated Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s science mission directorate. “Liquid water and liquid methane, we’ve advanced natural carbon-based molecules, and we’ve the power that we all know is required for all times.
“So we’ve, on Titan, a chance to watch the processes that have been current on early Earth, when life started to kind, and probably even circumstances which will harbour life in the present day,” Zurbuchen stated. “We could possibly search for biosignatures there in the present day.”
Dragonfly’s mobility will permit it to journey as much as 80 kilometres (110 miles) throughout Titan over the course of 20 or extra hops.
Concerning the dimension of a Mars rover, the flying drone will permit scientists to discover a wider vary on Titan than a mission restricted to the floor. Dragonfly will first contact down in Titan’s equatorial dune fields, then journey to a crater to analyze a area the place distant sensing observations from Cassini counsel the presence of water ice outcrops.
And in contrast to a rover on the floor, an instrumented drone won’t be stopped or delayed by obstacles like rocks and steep slopes.
NASA chosen Dragonfly over a competing proposal named the Comet Astrobiology Exploration Pattern Return, or CAESAR, mission to grow to be the fourth mission within the company’s New Frontiers programme. CAESAR would have flown a spacecraft to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the identical comet first explored by Europe’s Rosetta mission, and picked up a pattern from its nucleus for return to Earth.
The three earlier New Frontiers missions developed by NASA are all at present working in house.
The New Horizons spacecraft launched in 2006 and performed the primary up-close flyby of Pluto in 2015, then continued farther into the outer photo voltaic system to come across a 22-mile-long (35-kilometer) world within the Kuiper Belt named Ultima Thule on 1 January this yr.
NASA’s Juno orbiter launched in 2011 and arrived at Jupiter in 2016 to review the enormous planet’s environment and magnetosphere, and the OSIRIX-Rex mission lifted off in 2016 and reached the asteroid Bennu late final yr, the place the spacecraft will retrieve a pattern for return to Earth.
Company officers introduced Dragonfly and CAESAR as finalists from an preliminary listing of 12 mission proposals for the fourth New Frontiers mission in December 2017. NASA is committing as much as $850 million to design and develop the Dragonfly mission, excluding launch and operations prices.
When these bills are absolutely accounted, the mission is predicted to value round $1 billion.
Artist’s idea of the Dragonfly automobile at Titan. Credit score: NASA/JHUAPL
“Dragonfly would be the first drone lander with the potential to fly over 100 miles via Titan’s thick environment,” stated NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “Titan is in contrast to every other place in our Photo voltaic System, and probably the most akin to early Earth.
“This revolutionary mission would have been unthinkable only a few brief years in the past,” Bridenstine stated. “An incredible nation does nice issues. We are going to launch Dragonfly to discover the frontiers of human data for the advantage of all humanity.”
However Dragonfly is a dangerous mission.
“This mission is daring,” Zurbuchen stated. “We do these daring missions that change not solely what we all know, however how we predict what’s potential that we are able to do.”
Dragonfly might be constructed and managed at APL, which oversaw the event of the New Horizons probe and NASA’s Parker Photo voltaic Probe, which launched final yr and has already set a report for the closest spacecraft to the Solar.
“After we obtained the proposal for this mission, the primary proposal, the science was so compelling that we checked out all of the dangers that have been there — and there have been fairly quite a lot of them — and we simply mainly stated we need to give them an opportunity,” Zurbuchen stated.
In a convention name with reporters Thursday, NASA officers mentioned a number of of the early dangers they recognized early with the Dragonfly idea, such because the potential for hydrocarbons to clog the probe’s science devices.
“Titan is wealthy in hydrocarbons,” Niebur stated. “Often, when we’ve a NASA mission, we’re struggling to search out hint quantities of these items, and Titan has so many who the priority was raised that that vacuum cleaner system that sucks up the pattern and ship it to the instrument might get clogged or contaminated.”
The Dragonfly group redesigned the pattern supply system during the last year-and-a-half, throughout a preliminary “Part A” research funded by NASA.
“All these dangers, 10 dangers or so, that have been there have been eradicated,” Zurbuchen stated. “So it’s a group that has confirmed itself, a group that’s extremely numerous in all dimensions, and subsequently revolutionary, and introduced collectively by a powerful principal investigator.”
“One of many issues about Dragonfly that isn’t essentially obvious at first sight is that, whereas it is a new means of exploring a unique planet, that is truly know-how that may be very mature on Earth,” Turtle stated. “There’s a lot know-how growth when it comes to rotorcraft right here on Earth, when it comes to autonomous flight, and certainly a whole lot of the instrumentation that we’ll fly on Dragonfly relies on instrumentation that’s sitting on the floor of Mars proper now, that has flown in house earlier than. So actually what we’re doing with Dragonfly is innovation not invention.”
Turtle’s group initially proposed launching Dragonfly in 2025, however NASA is giving the mission an additional yr to arrange for launch.
“We felt at NASA … that the group may benefit enormously by some further time to work via among the challenges,” stated Lori Glaze, head of NASA’s planetary science division. “There was a really tight schedule, and we thought having just a little additional time would assist with that.”
The unique Dragonfly trajectory featured a flyby of Earth in 2026, one yr after its launch in 2025, adopted by additional gravity help flybys with Venus and Earth to slingshot towards Saturn, concentrating on a direct entry into Titan’s environment in 2034.
With a launch in 2026, engineers have deleted the primary Earth flyby from the trajectory, and Dragonfly will nonetheless attain Titan in 2034.
The spacecraft will plunge into Titan’s environment for a two-hour descent, utilizing friction and a parachute to decelerate earlier than the rotorcraft releases from its aeroshell and flies itself to the floor, touchdown straight on its skids.
Dragonfly’s exploration might be restricted to the equatorial areas of Titan, away from its methane oceans. The northern hemisphere, the place Titan’s largest seas are situated, might be in winter when the spacecraft arrives, with the Solar and Earth under the horizon.
“The large query that continues to be in regards to the supplies on the floor of Titan is the composition of the stable supplies,” Turtle stated.
The Cassini spacecraft’s radar was capable of resolve Titan’s methane seas and determine their chemical composition.
“The large excellent query is what the character of those stable floor supplies are, and that’s the place the keys to understanding the prebiotic chemistry that’s so considerable on Titan lies, within the stable floor supplies,” Turtle stated.
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