Build onto the shoulder of a (little) giant
If NASA is designing and building at this right moment an autonomous nuclear dual-quadcopter (named Dragonfly) that will focus on exploring Saturn’s moon Titan, we need to thank a courageous little buddy named “Ingenuity”.
Just a few years ago, most people thought it was impossible to fly into the thin air present on Mars, however with the surprise of most of the scientific community, NASA proved all of them to be wrong.
Ingenuity was, and it’s still today, a tiny, solar-powered robotic drone (but controlled by specialized personnel from Earth) that landed on Mars, strapped onto its big brother Perseverance rover, as part of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission.
Why choose Titan and not other distant worlds?
Scientists paid an incredible amount of attention to Saturn’s biggest moon Titan since it has been discovered by Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch astronomer, in 1655. Centuries passed until the two Voyager probes built by NASA observed Titan from a relatively close distance in 1979 and 1980, but due to the organic haze in the atmosphere, we were not able to observe the surface at visible wavelengths.
Then, a decade later in 1994, the Hubble Space Telescope imaged Titan at “longer near-infrared wavelengths”, however, we had to wait another 10 years before discovering more details about Titan’s surface landforms.
NASA’s newest spacecraft, Cassini, arrived there in July 2004. The probe used radar and imaging at near-infrared wavelengths to look through the thick atmosphere and reveal what lies on the surface.
During more than 100 close flybys, Cassini mapped much of Titan’s surface and made detailed studies of its atmosphere. Cassini brought with itself also the Huygens probe, which a year later parachuted safely down to Titan’s surface, to measure temperature, wind, and its composition.
However, on top of all by giving us the unique opportunity to look first eye the surface, it was at this moment that Titan earned the nickname “Ocean World”.
At this point, we can identify Titan as an ocean world and the only moon in our solar system with a dense atmosphere, which allows a hydrological cycle similar to the one present on Earth but with clouds of ethane as well as methane, rain, and liquid flowing across the surface enough to fill lakes and seas!
The abundant complex organic material accessible on Titan’s surface makes it an ideal destination for studying the conditions necessary for the habitability of an extraterrestrial environment and the kinds of chemical interactions that occurred before life developed on Earth.
Organic molecules are the base on which life proliferates, and this makes Titan an awesome opportunity to explore the origins of prebiotic chemistry outside of Earth’s environment.
What are gonna be the tasks of Dragonfly?
To be launched in 2027, the spacecraft will arrive at its destination in 2034. Dragonfly will have 3 years of planned missions to perform, during which it’s gonna carry out space exploration as we’ve never done before.
Like the Mars rovers, Curiosity, and Perseverance, Dragonfly will be powered by a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG), and this will enable flights as long as 160 kilometers per Tsol (or Titan sol, equivalent to almost 16 Earth day).
Here comes up a good question: why not use solar panels to recharge their batteries? Because, due to the thick and hazy atmosphere, solar power is not an option at all. Moreover, flying with huge panels on its back would have been quite tricky and risky.
Dragonfly will carry different instruments to perform a multidisciplinary science investigation of Titan’s surface as well as the atmosphere such as:
- Sampling surface materials in different locations and subsequently identifying chemical components contended in it using a mass spectrometer (DraMS);
- Measuring bulk elemental surface composition with a neutron-activated gamma-ray spectrometer (DraGNS);
- Monitoring surface and atmospheric conditions with meteorology sensors (DraGMet);
- Performing seismic studies to detect subsurface activity.
Those are just some of the interesting tasks that our quad-copter will carry out.
What’s to expect next from the Dragonfly program?
Dragonfly is the fourth selection of the New Frontiers program done by NASA for medium-class spaceships to investigate high-priority solar system targets. Through this program, we can recall the probes: New Horizons, Juno, and OSIRIS-REx.
Development of this mission is still ongoing so it’s quite normal to expect some changing as well as improvements along the way. So, we can’t wait to hear more from NASA and the team behind this awesome project. Stay tuned, more stories will follow!