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Could a dragonfly discover life?

NASA hopes to find out 11 years from now

Posted: By Jon Peddie 07.26.19

During a recent meeting at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, Josh Steele, an APL Senior Science Applications Developer, spoke about the adventurous project to launch a drone to Saturn’s moon, Titan.

Titan is an enticing target, and unlike any other place in the solar system, it has a nitrogen-based atmosphere like Earth. But, unlike Earth, it has methane clouds and rain. Other organics also form in the atmosphere and fall like light snow. But the intriguing part is that the moon’s weather has complex organics, energy, and water like what may have sparked life on our planet.

Larger than Mercury, Titan is the second-largest moon in our solar system. It is about 1.4 billion kilometers (886 million miles) from the Sun, 10 times farther than Earth. Because it is so far from the Sun, it's surface temperature is around -179 degrees Celsius (-290 degrees Fahrenheit), and it's surface pressure is 50% higher than Earth’s—not recommended as a vacation spot.

Titan has long intrigued astrophysicists, astronomers, and scientists. It was discovered on March 25, 1655, by the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens. We got our first close look at it over four and half years ago, on Christmas 2004, when NASA’s Cassini spacecraft sent a probe named after the astronomer to the moon’s surface. It landed in one piece and revealed a world analogous to a primordial Earth. Speculation about the moon has raged since.

Into this mysterious world, NASA will send Dragonfly, an autonomous drone with cameras, sensors, drills, and a small chemical lab, to analyze the diggings. 

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. You can see a simulation of the Dragonfly here. (Source: NASA)

 

Dragonfly will be a double-quad rotorcraft lander. The redundant rotor configuration will be able to tolerate the loss of at least one rotor or motor and still function. Each of the drone’s eight rotors will be about 1 m in diameter. It can travel at about 10 m/s or 36 km/h and can climb to an altitude of up to 4 km.

Because Titan has low gravity, low winds, and a thick atmosphere, it’s conducive to efficient rotor propulsion. The ship will fly and explore during the day, running from its batteries. In the evening, its radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) recharges the batteries. RTGs have a proven history in multiple spacecraft, and the extensive use of quad drones on Earth has provided a well-understood flight system.

When not flying, the craft will stream data to earth, which is about 90 minutes away. It’s that data transit latency that required the ship to be autonomous. The craft will operate under space radiation and temperatures averaging 94 K (−179.2 °C; −290.5 °F). More information on the ship can be found here. Dragonfly will launch prior to the end of 2025 and arrive in the mid-2030s.

Led by Principal Investigator Elizabeth Turtle at APL, Dragonfly is part of NASA’s New Frontiers program, which includes the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, Juno to Jupiter, and OSIRIS-REx to the asteroid Bennu. 

New Frontiers supports missions identified as top solar system exploration priorities by the planetary community. It’s managed by the Planetary Missions Program Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency’s Planetary Science Division in Washington.

“The New Frontiers program has transformed our understanding of the solar system, uncovering the inner structure and composition of Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere, discovering the icy secrets of Pluto’s landscape, revealing mysterious objects in the Kuiper belt, and exploring a near-Earth asteroid for the building blocks of life,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. “Now we can add Titan to the list of enigmatic worlds NASA will explore.”