The scientific aims of the upcoming Dragonfly mission to discover Saturn’s moon Titan are described in a brand new analysis paper, together with the devices required to fulfill these objectives.
With launch anticipated round 2027, Dragonfly ought to take to Titan’s skies in some unspecified time in the future within the mid-2030s. By that time I’ll be in my mid-60s—a full-fledged senior citizen—however I’ll undoubtedly comply with the mission with child-like enthusiasm. For you see, Titan is my favourite place in area (outdoors of Earth, in fact), owing to its many peculiar, enigmatic, and typically acquainted options. Additionally, as a devoted fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune collection, I’ve all the time imagined Titan—with its oily floor—as resembling the fictional Harkonnen planet of Giedi Prime.
Titan is the one moon within the photo voltaic system to function a dense ambiance and important portions of liquid on the floor, even when that liquid takes the type of hydrocarbon seas and lakes. Gigantic sand dunes drape its tropical areas, the results of cosmic rays blasting the moon’s floor ice. Titan additionally includes a huge equatorial desert, known as the Shangri-La sand sea, which hosts the occasional mud storm. In that sense, the moon additionally resembles Arrakis from Dune (no phrase but if Titan hosts gigantic sand worms, or Harkonnens for that matter).
This is a perfect vacation spot for a robotic probe, as Titan is brimming with scientific targets. As a mission, Dragonfly has been a go since 2019, however the formal aims of the mission have been solely lately disclosed. Jason Barnes, deputy principal investigator of the Dragonfly mission and a professor of physics on the College of Idaho, is the primary creator of the brand new paper, printed within the Planetary Science Journal.
Dragonfly is a dual-quadrotor drone that can function eight rotors, every measuring round 3.Three ft (1 meter) in size. With NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter presently buzzing round Mars, Dragonfly will turn out to be the second aerial car to fly on an alien world and the primary to take flight on an alien moon.
This gained’t be the first-ever mission to Titan. NASA’s stationary Huygens probe landed there in 2005, capturing among the eeriest photos I’ve ever seen, and the Cassini probe, which circled Saturn for 13 years, used its radio capabilities to see by way of Titan’s thick cloud tops. However Dragonfly will take the scientific exploration of Titan to the following degree.
“Titan represents an explorer’s utopia,” Alex Hayes, affiliate professor of astronomy within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and a co-author of the brand new examine, mentioned in a statement. “The science questions we have now for Titan are very broad as a result of we don’t know a lot about what is definitely occurring on the floor but. For each query we answered throughout the Cassini mission’s exploration of Titan from Saturn orbit, we gained 10 new ones.”
As the brand new paper factors out, Dragonfly will partake in what’s primarily however not completely an astrobiology mission. The aerial drone will seek for biosignatures (suggestive of earlier or present organic processes) and take measurements associated to the moon’s chemistry (together with the molecular constructing blocks required for all times) and the current potential for habitability.
Mission planners have chosen a touchdown web site close to Titan’s equator—a spot roughly 435 miles (700 km) north of the place Huygens landed. Dragonfly will discover the Shangri-La sand sea and presumably even go to the Selk impact crater—a attainable cradle of life.
The mission will primarily happen throughout the northern hemisphere winter. The half-ton drone shouldn’t have any drawback reaching flight, as Titan’s gravity is one-seventh that of Earth’s, the winds are light, and the ambiance is thick sufficient to provide carry. Mission scientists aren’t anticipating that rain—consisting of liquid methane—will likely be an issue, however they’re not solely positive.
Dragonfly, a “rotorcraft relocatable lander,” within the phrases of the researchers, will spend most of its time on the bottom performing science and transmitting its knowledge again to Earth. The aerial drone will solely fly for between 30 minutes and one hour as soon as each two Titan days, wherein one Titan day is the same as 16 Earth days. The workforce will choose new locations on the fly, so to talk, in a way just like how goal locations are chosen for Martian rovers.
The drone’s payload will include eight scientific cameras, two spectrometers, and a drill to pattern for advanced organics. Dragonfly can even carry a geophysics and meteorological suite with 11 completely different devices able to measuring air temperature, air stress, wind pace and course, and humidity.
The place Cassini was in a position to present grainy radio pictures from area, Dragonfly will do the bottom truthing wanted to substantiate or disprove theories in regards to the moon’s chemical processes and atmospheric floor interactions. The workforce can even examine the position of tropical deserts in Titan’s international methane cycle.
“My major science pursuits are in understanding Titan as a fancy Earth-like world and making an attempt to grasp the processes which can be driving its evolution,” mentioned Hayes. “That includes every thing from the methane cycle’s interactions with the floor and the ambiance, to the routing of fabric all through the floor and potential alternate with the inside.”
The seek for potential biosignatures will embody “life as we all know it,” that’s, life that wants liquid water to outlive, and “life, however not as we all know it,” comparable to life able to find a house in Titan’s liquid hydrocarbons, in keeping with the paper.
Discovering the methods wherein Titan is just like Earth, or the methods wherein a younger Earth could have resembled Titan, is clearly essential, however I’m simply as eager about understanding all of the methods Titan is not like Earth. Come the 2030s, I’ll be looking out for the unique stuff, together with additional validation of Titan as probably the most alien place within the photo voltaic system.
Extra: A methane sea on Saturn’s moon Titan may very well be over 1,000 ft deep.