NASA is going to Titan: Space agency reveals Dragonfly mission to explore the surface of Saturn’s largest moon in search of clues on the origins of life in our solar system
- NASA announced Dragonfly as the next mission in its New Frontiers program
- It’s set to launch in 2026 and arriving to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, in 2034
- The quadcopter will collect samples at different sites across Titan’s surface
- Will study areas thought to have once held liquid water, organic material, energy
- When combined, these key materials are said to be the recipe for life
NASA has announced a plan to explore the surface of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.
The space agency made the announcement in a media teleconference Thursday afternoon, detailing its vision of a robotic rotorcraft dubbed Dragonfly that will collect samples and measure soil composition in search for signs of habitability.
The enormous, icy moon is said to be the most Earth-like world in the solar system, and previous findings by the Cassini mission suggest it holds some of the primitive ingredients necessary for the emergence of life.
Dragonfly will launch in 2026 as part of NASA’s New Frontiers program, and is expected to arrive at Titan in 2034.
NASA has announced a plan to explore the surface of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. The space agency made the announcement in a media teleconference Thursday afternoon, detailing its vision of a robotic rotorcraft dubbed Dragonfly (artist’s impression pictured)
COULD PRIMITIVE LIFE EXIST ON TITAN?
Using data collected as Cassini flew through Titan’s upper atmosphere, at about 950–1300 km (590-807 miles) above the surface, researchers have identified what are known as ‘carbon chain anions.’
These are thought to be the building blocks of more the more complex compounds that make life possible.
Researchers say the data from Cassini’s plasma spectrometer (CAPS), suggest the carbon chains ‘seeded’ larger molecules at Titan, as they were found to dwindle closer to the moon, while precursors to larger aerosols underwent rapid growth.
Not only does the discovery suggest Titan may contain molecules that drive prebiotic chemistry, but it could also help to explain how life sprung up on Earth, according to ESA.
‘Dragonfly is a bold, game-changing way to explore the solar system,’ said APL Director Ralph Semmel.
‘This mission is a visionary combination of creativity and technical risk-taking that will help us unravel some of the most critical mysteries of the universe — including, possibly, the keys to our origins.
‘We’re honored that NASA has entrusted APL and our partners with this great opportunity and responsibility.’
Initially, Dragonfly will carry out a 2.7-year mission to explore different sites across Titan, including dunes and impact craters.
Observations from the Cassini mission indicate these areas once held liquid water and complex organic materials.
The dual quadcopter will sample these organic surface materials and measure their composition in effort to characterize the large moon’s habitability.
Dragonfly will first touchdown in an equatorial area known as the ‘Shangri-La’ dune fields, which have been compared to the Namibian dunes in southern Africa.
It will then complete ‘leapfrog’ flights of around 5 miles (8km) each to hop to other areas, stopping to take samples from each site.
Eventually, Dragonfly will make its way to the Selk impact crater, where scientists have spotted evidence of last liquid water, organic (carbon-containing) molecules, and energy.
These, together, are said to be the building blocks for life.
‘Titan is such an amazing, complex destination,’ said Elizabeth ‘Zibi’ Turtle, Dragonfly principal investigator from APL.
‘We don’t know the steps that were taken on Earth to get from chemistry to biology, but we do know that a lot of that prebiotic chemistry is actually happening on Titan today.
‘We are beyond excited for the chance to explore and see what awaits us on this exotic world.’
The enormous, icy moon is said to be the most Earth-like world in the solar system, and previous findings by the Cassini mission suggest it holds some of the primitive ingredients necessary for the emergence of life
Titan is the largest of Saturn’s 62 known moons and sits 886 million miles (1.4 billion kilometers) from the sun.
This distance means temperatures at the surface are frigid – according to NASA, Titan’s surface temperature is around minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit (-179 Celsius).
Surface pressure is much higher than we’re used to as well, at about 50 percent higher than Earth’s.
‘Visiting this mysterious ocean world could revolutionize what we know about how life formed in the universe,’ said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.
‘This cutting-edge mission would have been unthinkable even just a few years ago, but we’re now ready for Dragonfly’s amazing flight.’
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