NASA’s Dragonfly Drone to Unlock the Mysteries of Titan
Following the success of the NASA orbiter Cassini, in its last flyby of Titan, a project has been formed to send a drone to the most captivating of Saturn’s moons. The Dragonfly drone will explore Titan in the same way that rovers have explored Mars. Unlike the Red Planet, Titan has a thick enough atmosphere to allow propelled flight over its surface.
The project is the brainchild of Elizabeth Turtle, a scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, located in Laurel, Maryland. With funding from NASA’s New Frontiers Program, she hopes to get the green light for the eight-bladed Dragonfly drone’s mission soon. The project is estimated to cost a total of $1 billion, and was submitted last month to the Lunar and Planetary Sciences Conference.
Drones are expected to provide the optimal means of exploring Titan, thanks mostly to the atmosphere which allows them to fly over surface obstacles that rovers might struggle with. That atmosphere will also protect the drone from potentially harmful UV radation. As gravity there is around one-tenth of that on Earth, it is expected that the Dragonfly would be able to carry out longer reconnaissance missions. These would be punctuated by periods of recharging on the actual surface of the moon, using its radioisotope thermoelectric generator, which uses heat generated from the decay of plutonium-238 to produce power for the drone.
The Dragonfly will be equipped with a drill and sampling system, remote sensing devices and a spectrometer, all of which will enable the drone to study the moon’s atmosphere, weather, and interesting selenological features such as Titan’s lakes of methane and ethane.
A further advantage that the drone would have over surface-based rovers and slower-moving aerial explorers, is its ability to maintain a clear line of sight with our home planet. In order to maintain communication with Earth, the Dragonfly will remain at points on Titan’s surface which are facing our planet, taking into consideration the rotation of the moon itself.
In an interview with the website Space.com, Turtle explained why Titan remains of high interest to planetologists:
The kind of prebiotic chemistry that we’re looking at, these are the things we can’t do in the lab. The timescales are too long to do these experiments in the lab, but Titan has been doing them for ages. The results are just sitting on the surface.
With its ability to move, the probe would always be able to maintain a line of sight to Earth to keep communication going.
Subject to approval, Dragonfly will be launched around the midway point of the next decade, and arrive at Titan sometime during the 2030s.
(Photos by Michael Carroll / John Hopkins APL / NASA)