NASA’s New Frontiers program is home to groundbreaking missions like New Horizons, Juno, and OSIRIS-REx. This week, two finalists were chosen for a robotic mission planned to launch in the mid-2020s. One of them ditches the rover platform in favor of a more drone-like platform. Meet Dragonfly.
Dragonfly’s destination is the Saturn moon, Titan. And unlike the Mars’ rovers, Dragonfly won’t be a stuck in one general area. It will gather science from different sites hundreds of kilometers apart.
The dual-quadcopter won’t fly like a typical drone, though. The communications delay between Earth and Titan means regular flying is a no-go. Instead, Dragonfly will perform a series of ‘hops.’ Once science gathering is done at one location, it will take off and head for the next.
During flight, instruments onboard will gather info on the makeup of Titan’s atmosphere and capture aerial imaging of Titan’s surface. These images will be huge for studying Titan’s geology. These same images will be used to scout for future ‘hop’ landings too.
Scientists won’t look longingly at interesting sites and wish they could explore it closer. With Dragonfly, they can queue up another ‘hop’ and check it out.
According to the Dragonfly team, the mission would last about two years. And ‘hops’ would happen each Titan day (that’s 16 Earth days). Flying, science gathering, and data transmission will happen as the Sun shines on Titan (8 Earth days). At night, Dragonfly will use its Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG) to recharge.
Here are the goals for the Dragonfly as the folks behind the mission tell it.
– Understand the organic and methanogenic cycle on Titan, especially as it relates to prebiotic chemistry.
– Investigate the subsurface ocean and/or liquid reservoirs, particularly their evolution and possible interaction with the surface.
Will Dragonfly find life? I would pump the brakes on that one. It could, but this mission is about increasing our knowledge of Titan. We still don’t have a good idea of the moon’s surface composition. What complex organic compounds are formed from the interaction between sunlight and methane and nitrogen molecules? Are there chemical signatures that could point to signs of water or hydrocarbon-based life? Those are just a couple of the questions Dragonfly will attempt to answer if it’s selected by NASA for the next New Frontiers mission.
Titan is also perfect for this kind of mission. Peter Bedini from Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, called Titan the easiest place to fly a quadcopter in the solar system in a recent presentation. That’s because Titan has an atmosphere more than four times as dense as Earth. And, the gravity is only 1/7 of Earth’s. If you were standing on Titan, you could strap on a pair of wings, flap your arms, and fly.
Bedini’s presentation dives into much more about how Dragonfly works and what the team hopes to answer if picked for the final mission.
Dragonfly is going up against the CAESAR (Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return) mission. CAESAR is being designed to return a piece of Comet 67P. That’s the same comet ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft explored. Either mission would be great, but I hope Dragonfly wins out. A drone flying around Titan taking stunning images and revealing more about the mysterious world? How could you not choose it?