A new mission involving a drone-like lander will explore the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan. The mission — called Dragonfly — received a coveted funding slot from NASA’s New Frontiers program, which funds ambitious missions to explore objects in our Solar System.
“Dragonfly is a Mars rover-sized drone that will be able to fly from place to place on Titan,” Elizabeth “Zibi” Turtle, the lead investigator of the mission, said in a briefing. The 10-foot-long, and 10-foot-wide dual-quadcopter will look like a giant drone, with eight rotors helping it soar across the moon’s surface for about 8 or 9 miles (12-14 kilometers) in under an hour. It will make one of these “hops” about once every 16 days, scouting out future landing sites, spending a lot of time sampling the surface, and observing the weather. It will also be able to make shorter hops of just a few feet if the scientists spot something interesting near a landing site.
On Titan, it’s actually easier for a vehicle to fly than to roll in order to get to all the different places that the scientists would like to explore. Titan’s gravity is just a seventh of Earth’s and the atmosphere is four times thicker than our planet’s. That makes it perfect for flying. “If you put on wings, you’d be able to fly on Titan,” Turtle says.
“If you put on wings, you’d be able to fly on Titan”
Dragonfly was one of two finalists being considered for the New Frontiers award. The other, CAESAR, led by Steve Squyres at Cornell University, would have aimed to grab a piece of a comet’s surface and bring it back to Earth. “For the comet sample return mission unfortunately the race is over.” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate said during a press conference. But he also added that other funding opportunities would open up in the future. “Some of the best ideas take multiple shots on goal before they become a reality,” he said.
The two missions had already made it through several competitive rounds before the final decision. New Frontiers missions generally cost around $850 million to develop, making them slightly pricier than the agency’s Discovery missions, like the Mars InSight lander, which cost about $814 million, or the Dawn spacecraft which cost $500 million.
Only three other missions have been funded through the New Frontiers program. The Juno spacecraft, in orbit around Jupiter, has been observing the giant planet’s roiling atmosphere and magnetic field. New Horizons wooshed by Pluto in 2015, and flew by a Kuiper Belt object in December of 2018. And OSIRIS-REx, an asteroid-sampling mission, is currently in orbit around the asteroid Bennu, looking for a safe place to grab a sample next year.
NASA / JHU-APL
An illustration of Dragonfly landing on the surface of Titan.
Like those missions, Dragonfly is expected to expand our view of distant objects in the solar system — in this case, Saturn’s moon Titan, whose bizarre chemistry and thick atmosphere have intrigued scientists for years. (It is the only moon in our system to boast a substantial atmosphere.) The Huygens probe, carried by Cassini, gave us a first glimpse of the moon’s surface. Then, Cassini itself revealed that Titan had lakes of liquid methane on the surface — making it the only other body in our Solar System to boast liquid besides Earth. Dragonfly’s ability to travel across the surface will let researchers visit several interesting sites over the course of the planned two-year mission, traveling about 108 miles (175 kilometers) during that time.
“the largest Zen gardens in the Solar System”
Its first target will be a soft sea of sand dunes that offers a safe landing site. Turtle describes them as “Basically the largest Zen gardens in the Solar System wrapped around almost the entire equatorial region.” From there, Dragonfly, powered by a nuclear generator and onboard batteries, will eventually make its way to Selk crater, taking pictures and samples along the way.
The spacecraft will be loaded with scientific equipment. The researchers are interested in Titan’s geology (could there be ice volcanoes or Titanquakes?) but they’re also really interested in its chemistry. Like any mission to another world, they’ll be looking for evidence of life, but they’ll also be interested to see how these chemicals interact on their own. Those observations could give us a window into how similar materials might have interacted on Earth before life developed here.
“Titan is just a perfect chemical laboratory to understand prebiotic chemistry — the chemistry that occurred before chemistry took the step to biology,” Turtle says. “Ingredients that we know are necessary for the development of life as we know it are sitting on the surface of Titan.” Those ingredients include organic molecules on the surface, sunlight and evidence of water hanging out on the surface in the past. All of those factors come together in Selk crater, making it a tantalizing science destination.
Dragonfly is set to launch in 2026 and won’t land on Titan until 2034, so we’ll have to wait a long time to get our first images of the mission’s insect-eye view of another world.