The National Aeronautics and Space Administration will undertake a mission to take a flying robot to Titan, the largest moon circling the planet Saturn. NASA plans to launch this robotic explorer in 2026, and they expect its arrival in 2036.
The robot, called Dragonfly, will be a quadcopter equipped with instruments that are capable of identifying molecular compounds. Upon its landing on Titan, the robot will travel to several selected locations in a period of two years. There, it will collect and analyze samples it collects and send its data back to Earth.
NASA’s Frontiers Program, which finances solar missions costing up to $850 million, will fund the project. This program, founded in 2003, has bankrolled three other pursuits of this kind. The first was a probe set on reaching Pluto called New Horizons, followed by Juno, which took flight to Jupiter. The third, dubbed OSIRIS-REx was a mission to land on an asteroid.
Titan was chosen for this endeavor because it is a prime candidate in the solar system for potentially harboring extraterrestrial life. The moon is enveloped in a vast sheet of ice 200 kilometers thick. Temperatures can fall as low as minus 298 degrees Fahrenheit. On its surface, there are rivers and lakes, but they comprise of ethane and methane.
Fly, #Dragonfly, fly! Our next destination in the solar system is Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, where our rotorcraft-lander will explore dozens of locations across the icy world. Discover why: https://t.co/GhopCqDjx4 pic.twitter.com/55AilAZ4ar
— NASA (@NASA) June 27, 2019
Scientists believe Titan has all the necessary components for accommodating living organisms. It has complex carbon chains that are required for amino acids to form, and the ingredients for the membranes that cover cells here on Earth.
Titan hides a vast moon-enveloping ocean below its icy shroud. It is there that alien life is most likely to reside. However, Dragonfly will not attempt to breach the ice and access this ocean. Rather it will gather material from the moon’s thick atmosphere and surface.
About the Dragonfly
The Dragonfly will be powered by the decay coming from plutonium-238. It will be about the same size as a car but will be able to hover about the moon freely. This is due to the fact that Titan’s atmosphere is notably thicker than that of Earth’s. Additionally, its gravitational pull is significantly weaker, allowing the probe to move around with ease.
The probe will visit several locations that researchers deem probably hold the molecules that could constitute life. It’s planned to make contact with the moon near the equator and migrate to different sites. To do so would require it to navigate on its own, since information and commands from Earth would take too long to reach it. Thus, the probe will be equipped with sensors that will enable it to traverse the carbohydrate-covered plains of Titan.
This won’t be the first escapade to or near Saturn’s principal moon. In 1970, the probe Voyager managed to send back a few photos of Titan, but the lens of the probe couldn’t pierce its atmosphere. Afterward, in the 1990s the Hubble telescope succeeded where the Voyager failed. Finally, in 2005, the probe called Huygens landed on its surface and sent data to us till its dying beep.