NASA announced Thursday that it is sending a drone-style quadcopter to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.
Dragonfly, as the mission is called, will be capable of soaring across the skies of Titan and landing intermittently to take scientific measurements, studying the world’s mysterious atmosphere and topography while searching for hints of life on the only world other than Earth in our solar system with standing liquid on its surface. The mission will be developed and led from the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in Laurel, Maryland.
“This revolutionary mission would have been unthinkable just a few years ago,” said Jim Bridenstine, the administrator of NASA, in a video statement announcing the mission.
The spacecraft is scheduled to launch in 2026. Once at Titan in 2034, Dragonfly will have a life span of at least 2 1/2 years, with a battery that will be recharged with a radioactive power source between flights. Cameras on Dragonfly will stream images during flight, offering people on Earth a bird’s-eye view of the Saturn moon.
Titan has long intrigued planetary scientists. On Christmas Day 2004, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft sent a probe, Huygens, to the moon’s surface. It landed in one piece, revealing a world analogous to a primordial Earth — Elizabeth Turtle, who will lead the mission for the lab as its principal investigator, described it as “eerily familiar on such a different and exotic world.” Rather than water, Titan’s seas are filled with liquid methane.
In addition to a camera, Dragonfly will carry an assortment of scientific instruments: spectrometers to study Titan’s composition; a suite of meteorology sensors; and even a seismometer to detect titanquakes when it lands on the ground. Drills in the landing skids will collect samples of the Titan surface for onboard analysis.
Part of the Dragonfly mission is to study whether the moon of Saturn could now be, or once was, home to life. Because of the nature of its atmosphere, Titan is chemically very much like our world’s primordial past.
The spacecraft has been under consideration for 2 1/2 years in NASA’s class of science missions, called New Frontiers. The competition, held between multiple institutions in government and academia, is not unlike a “Shark Tank” for deep space exploration.