NASA has thrown its financial support behind project Dragonfly– a drone mission co-led by Western planetary geologist Catherine Neish – to explore Saturn’s massive moon Titan.
This week, NASA announced Dragonfly as its pick to examine Titan’s geology, chemistry and potential for life.
Mission cost, excluding launch and operation, is USD$850 million.
The plan is to build a quadcopter spacecraft that would launch in 2026 and reach Titan by 2034, and then explore the moon’s geologic, biologic and atmospheric conditions during its two-year mission.
Neish, an Earth Sciences professor and Planetary Science Institute (PSI) researcher, is co- investigator with R. Aileen Yingst.
Yingst will study Titan’s geologic processes. Neish’s focus will be impact cratering, volcanism and aqueous surface chemistry. She called this a “natural laboratory” for the study of prebiotic molecules.
Neish is involved in several spacecraft missions with international, multi-disciplinary teams. She is believed to be the only Canadian researcher on the Dragonfly project.
Titan, about 50 per cent larger than Earth’s moon, has long fascinated planetary scientists, tantalized by what mysteries might lie within and beneath its dense, orange-brown atmosphere.
Only when the Huygens probe (part of the Cassini mission) produced some images of the surface in 2005 did researchers catch more than a hint of its potential for life.
It appears to have climate that includes wind and something like rain, Earthlike dunes and seas that run full with liquid methane and ethane despite shatteringly cold temperatures of 95 Kelvin (about minus-180 degrees Celsius).
Its ice slurry, methane, carbon-based molecules and energy suggest it may hold the ingredients for potential life – even if not the recipe for it.
Dragonfly had been one of two projects on the short list for NASA’s New Horizons funding. (The other was a proposal to retrieve a sample from a comet to determine its origins and composition.) Now it has soared to the top of the list.
Neish is still impressed by how quickly and how far the concept has flown since its inception.
“This idea was somebody’s conversation over dinner a few years ago – and now it’s being funded by NASA.”
The Dragonfly spacecraft will be about two metres long and weigh a few hundred kilograms (about the same size of a Mars rover). Like its namesake insect, it will be designed to flit between sites, never stopping for long in any one place.
Propelled by four pairs of stacked rotors and powered by plutonium in a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (the same power source as the Mars Curiosity rover and the Cassini space probe), it will be able to fly several kilometres on a single ‘Titan overnight’ charge and potentially cover hundreds of kilometres during a Titan day (equivalent to 16 Earth days).
Despite its elegant design and delicate-sounding name, Dragonfly will be a scientific workhorse: sampling materials, determining surface composition, assessing Titan’s organic chemistry and habitability, monitoring atmospheric and surface conditions, performing seismic studies and taking images of landforms to investigate geological processes.
“Unlike other worlds we’ve landed on, Titan really has an otherworldly feel,” Yingst said in a statement through NASA. “For a geologist, being able to study and remotely move around on the surface of a planet where water ice is as hard as rock, and liquid water would be considered a lava, is tremendously challenging and exciting.”
PSI Senior Scientist Amanda Hendrix, whose book Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets looks at the challenges of spaceflight and Titan as a human destination, was similarly enthusiastic, “Titan is such a fascinating and Earth-like world, with its thick atmosphere, weather and surface liquids. I like that Dragonfly takes advantage of the Titan environment, namely the low gravity and thick atmosphere, to explore multiple sites across the diverse world.”
The team is headed by Elizabeth Turtle at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), which manages the mission for NASA.