We’re Going to Titan! Dragonfly Drone Will Discover Saturn’s Greatest Moon

June 28, 2019 - Comment

NASA has chosen its subsequent New Frontiers mission: Dragonfly, a rover-sized drone will start ‘coptering round Titan in 2034. Artist rendering of Dragonfly on Titan’s floor.Johns Hopkins APL Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, has lengthy tantalized us from afar. An opaque ambiance enshrouds a freezing-cold world the place methane cycles by way of clouds, precipitation, and

NASA has chosen its subsequent New Frontiers mission: Dragonfly, a rover-sized drone will start ‘coptering round Titan in 2034.

Dragonfly on Titan

Artist rendering of Dragonfly on Titan’s floor.
Johns Hopkins APL

Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, has lengthy tantalized us from afar. An opaque ambiance enshrouds a freezing-cold world the place methane cycles by way of clouds, precipitation, and rivers and lakes in the identical means that water does on Earth. This surroundings holds all of the elements for all times — water, natural molecules, and power — that have been current on early Earth.

Now, NASA has introduced that its subsequent New Frontiers mission, led by Elizabeth “Zibi” Turtle (Johns Hopkins Utilized Physics Laboratory), will allow us to see this unique world as we’ve by no means completed earlier than.

A Dragonfly on Titan

Dragonfly, an eight-rotor, Curiosity-size drone, will launch in 2026 for an eight-year trajectory by way of the photo voltaic system earlier than touchdown on Titan’s sand dunes in 2034. From there, Dragonfly will conduct dozens of reconnaissance flights, first investigating the methane-based grains that make up the dunes, then flying farther afield to strategy and enter Selk Crater. The long-ago influence that created this 80-kilometer (50-mile) large crater melted water ice, which combined with natural molecules. NASA’s Cassini probe has already surveyed this area and recognized a number of outcrops the place this water-organics combination exists proper on the floor — ideally suited websites for investigating prebiotic chemistry and even looking for indicators of life.

View of Titan during Huygens's descent

Huygens dropped to Titan’s floor on January 14, 2005. Throughout its 147-minute plunge by way of the moon’s thick, orange-brown ambiance, it recorded this panorama of a shocking Earth-like scene, with river techniques coursing down mountainsides to smooth, sandy plains.
ESA / NASA / JPL / Univ. of Arizona

Dragonfly will land precisely one Titan yr (29.5 Earth years) after the European House Company’s Huygens probe descended by way of the moon’s murky ambiance. Huygens was designed as a primary look and lasted solely 2½ hours on restricted battery energy. However the glimpse it offered confirmed us a world that’s surprisingly acquainted regardless of a floor temperature that hovers round -180°C (-300°F). From above, Huygens noticed river-like channels that appeared to empty into a bigger sea; the touchdown website itself resembled a dried up river- or lakebed, strewn with 10- to 15-cm cobbles.

Given this temporary look, scientists are itching to research this terrain. However they gained’t be going to the rivers and lakes. Dragonfly will land, as Huygens did, throughout northern winter, when the north pole of Titan receives no daylight. Extra importantly for communication functions, the northern, lake-filled areas gained’t have a direct sightline to Earth. With out Cassini in orbit to relay communications, Dragonfly might want to transmit information straight.

As a substitute, Dragonfly will journey to the “Shangri-La” dune fields in Titan’s equatorial area, which seem much like the Namib dunes in southern Africa. Whereas Cassini’s radar may examine seas and lakes, the probe had extra restricted capabilities for the sand dunes. “The massive excellent query is the character of stable floor supplies,” Turtle explains. “They maintain the keys to understanding the prebiotic chemistry that’s ample on the floor of Titan.”

Dragonfly’s “Eyes”

For its investigations, Dragonfly will include most of the devices that Curiosity carries on Mars. However as a result of the probe will fly as an alternative of roll, it has the potential to cowl much more floor than a rover would — greater than 175 kilometers (108 miles) over a baseline mission of two.7 years. That’s practically double the gap traveled to this point by all of the Mars rovers mixed.

global map of Saturn's moon Titan

The Cassini spacecraft offered a helpful place to begin for scouting out Dragonfly’s touchdown website. This international map of Titan was created utilizing near-infrared photos taken by the Cassini spacecraft’s Imaging Science Subsystem. Darkish areas throughout the equator are dune fields.
NASA / JPL / House Science Institute

Right here’s a quick rundown of Dragonfly’s devices:

Downward-looking cameras will examine the drone’s groundtrack, whereas forward-looking cameras will examine the horizon.
A mass spectrometer much like the one on Curiosity will drill into the bottom, liberating particles that it’s going to then vacuum up right into a chamber. It’s going to take measurements, then bake the particles and examine the gases launched with a fuel chromatograph
A neutron-activated gamma-ray spectrometer will examine bulk floor composition. Normally these sorts of spectrometers depend on cosmic rays to generate neutrons, however Titan’s ambiance is simply too thick for cosmic rays to get by way of. As a substitute, this spectrometer will generate its personal neutrons, sending a pulse into the bottom after which investigating the outcomes.
Meteorology sensors will measure wind and different atmospheric and floor circumstances
A seismograph will sense Titanquakes and use them to research the moon’s inside construction
Different devices?

“We’re doing innovation, not invention,” says Turtle, noting that many of those devices have variations already sitting on the floor of Mars.

Getting Round

Titan’s distance from Earth and the following time delays in speaking with Dragonfly imply that flight must be largely autonomous. The moon’s ambiance is 4 occasions denser than Earth’s air, whereas its gravity is seven occasions weaker, so flight itself is comparatively straightforward. “For those who placed on wings, you’d have the ability to fly on Titan,” says NASA Program Scientist Curt Neibur. Likewise, self-flying drones are already commonplace on Earth, so it’s only a matter of making use of the methods to a different world.

Dragonfly in flight

An artist’s conception of the Dragonfly in flight
Johns Hopkins APL

Titan’s ambiance is opaque, letting little daylight by way of, so for energy Dragonfly will carry a multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator (MMRTG). An MMRTG is especially helpful on Titan because it dispenses warmth together with energy. Nonetheless, the MMRTG produces too low a wattage for high-energy actions like flight, so it can cost a battery to offer energy for these functions. Charging will happen throughout Titan’s night time, which lasts eight Earth days.

Titan’s floor is likely to be difficult; Huygens slid a bit when it landed. So Dragonfly will land on skids. It’s going to additionally carry out “leapfrog flights” to scout out future touchdown websites. Its first touchdown website is already chosen, so from there it can scout out touchdown website B, after which website C, earlier than returning to website B to land. The flights will step by step lengthen to about eight kilometers (5 miles) in size.

Because it flies, Titan will likely be taking photos of its environment and given the moon’s similarity to our planet, the views will look lots like an orange-hued Earth. However there will likely be some variations: extra apparent craters, for one, and a unique sort of geography too. “The topography on Titan is pretty subdued normally in comparison with what we’re used to on a silicate planet, solely a mile or so excessive at most, and the dunes themselves are pretty low,” Turtle explains.

Simply as Titan is less complicated to fly over, it’s additionally simpler to land on. Bear in mind the “seven minutes of terror” skilled by Mars explorers? On Titan, that’s going to stretch to a few hours. The moon’s low gravity imply that its ambiance is prolonged, and entry begins up at 1,100 km. From there, it can open its most important parachute at four km, then discard that and open a second at 1 km. (It wants two parachutes as a result of with simply the primary chute, the descent would take even longer.) Then, as a result of Dragonfly can certainly fly, it can disconnect from its protecting shell and helicopter to its touchdown website. You possibly can watch an animation of the touchdown sequence right here:

Good issues come to those that wait — thrilling occasions are forward in 2034!

Do you wish to know extra in regards to the mission? Ask all of your questions subsequent Monday: NASA is internet hosting an “Ask Me Something” session on Reddit on July 1st at three p.m. EDT.

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