NASA announced the latest mission in its New Frontiers program, called Dragonfly a giant flying drone, which will explore Saturn’s largest moon, Titan in 2026. It’s the only moon in our solar system that has an atmosphere.If all goes according to plan, Dragonfly will land on the hazy, frigid satellite in 2034 and then spend several years flying around. The rotorcraft will visit dozens of promising locations on Titan to investigate the chemistry that could lead to life.
It will be designed to fly more than 100 miles over the massive moon’s frigid terrain. Dragonfly is part of the NASA New Frontiers program, which also includes Jupiter probe Juno, the OSIRIS-Rex asteroid mission, and more. Dragonfly won’t be the first drone to go in space. A tiny helicopter scout will accompany NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission, which is scheduled to launch toward the Red Planet next summer and land in February 2021.
“It’s the first drone lander and it can fly over 100 miles through Titan’s thick atmosphere,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in a statement. “Titan is most comparable to early Earth. Dragonfly’s instruments will help evaluate organic chemistry and the chemical signatures of past or present life. We will launch Dragonfly to explore the frontiers of human knowledge for the benefit of all humanity.”
BIG NEWS: The next @NASASolarSystem mission is… #Dragonfly – a rotorcraft lander mission to Saturn’s largest moon Titan. This ocean world is the only moon in our solar system with a dense atmosphere & we’re so excited to see what Dragonfly discovers: https://t.co/whePqbuGBq pic.twitter.com/BQdMhSZfgP
— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) June 27, 2019
“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.”
Dragonfly has eight rotors and fly like a large drone. It will take advantage of Titan’s dense atmosphere – which is 4x denser than Earth’s. It will become the first vehicle ever to fly.During its 2.7-year mission, Dragonfly will explore diverse environments.Titan is chemically similar to Earth before life evolved.Unlike Earth, Titan has clouds and rain of methane.
They will explore sand dunes on Titan to determine if they’re made of the same complex organic material discovered in the atmosphere. They will also investigate the moon’s atmospheric and surface properties and its subsurface ocean and liquid reservoirs. Additionally, instruments will search for chemical evidence of past or extant life.
Titan is larger than the planet Mercury and is the second largest moon in our solar system. As it orbits Saturn, it is about 886 million miles (1.4 billion kilometers) away from the Sun, about 10 times farther than Earth. Because it is so far from the Sun, its surface temperature is around -290 degrees Fahrenheit (-179 degrees Celsius). Its surface pressure is also 50 percent higher than Earth’s.
“With the Dragonfly mission, NASA will once again do what no one else can do,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “Visiting this mysterious ocean world could revolutionize what we know about life in the universe. This cutting-edge mission would have been unthinkable even just a few years ago, but we’re now ready for Dragonfly’s amazing flight.”
“Titan is unlike any other place in the solar system, and Dragonfly is like no other mission,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for Science at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “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.”