A drone called Dragonfly will be buzzing around Saturn’s largest moon in 2034, if all goes according to plan.
That’s because NASA has picked a mission to the icy moon Titan for its next major foray out into the solar system.
“Dragonfly will be the first drone lander, with the capability to fly over 100 miles through Titan’s thick atmosphere,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Thursday as the agency unveiled its plan.
Titan fascinates scientists because it’s so similar to our own planet — even though it’s far colder, at -300 degrees Fahrenheit. Like Earth, it has clouds, lakes and rivers. On Titan, however, these are made of liquid methane instead of water.
Titan was previously visited by the Huygens probe that was delivered by the Cassini spacecraft. That mission, in 2005, gave researchers an idea of what to expect when they targeted Titan with Dragonfly.
The Dragonfly mission will launch in 2026, but it will take eight years to get to Titan. Once it reaches the moon, Dragonfly will then spend about 2 1/2 years making a series of short flights, flying with the help of eight rotors.
Dragonfly will gradually venture from dune fields to a large crater so scientists can take measurements at different spots, analyzing the moon’s surface and atmosphere.
The mission will be led by Elizabeth Turtle, of Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.
“We’re absolutely thrilled and ready to jump on it and get going to go to Titan,” Turtle said on a NASA webcast. “Titan is just a perfect chemical laboratory to understand prebiotic chemistry, the chemistry that occurred before chemistry took the step to biology.”
Titan is the only moon in our solar system that has a thick atmosphere. In it, chemical reactions create complex organic molecules. “And then they drift down out of the atmosphere to the surface almost like a light snow,” says Curt Niebur, lead program scientist for NASA’s New Frontiers Program. “And it’s that kind of complicated organic synthesis that really drives our interest towards Titan.”
Dragonfly’s cameras will be able to take pictures as it flies over the moon’s strange surface, adds Niebur.
“We will actually get the experience as if we were riding along with Dragonfly, looking down at this alien yet very familiar kind of surface that has these rivers and mountains,” he says. “I think that’s going to be a tremendous experience for the public.”
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