NASA has announced that its next major planetary sciences mission will be Dragonfly, a nuclear-powered robotic quadcopter that will explore Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.
“With the Dragonfly mission, NASA will once again do what no one else can do,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “Visiting this mysterious ocean world could revolutionize what we know about life in the universe.”
NASA announced the selection of the Dragonfly mission at a June 27 press briefing. It is the fourth of the agency’s New Frontier line of medium-class planetary science missions. Previous New Frontier program missions have included New Horizons and Juno, a space probe which is currently orbiting Jupiter.
Dragonfly is set to be one of NASA’s most ambitious missions to date. It is expected to be launched in 2026 and will touchdown on the surface of Titan in 2034. Once on the surface of Titan, the three-metre-long nuclear-powered robotic quadcopter will move from location to location under powered flight searching for “prebiotic chemical processes common on both Titan and Earth.” Its primary mission is expected to last 2.7 years during which it will cover 175 kilometres (108 miles).
“Dragonfly will explore diverse environments from organic dunes to the floor of an impact crater where liquid water and complex organic materials key to life once existed together for possibly tens of thousands of years,” explained a June 27 press release. “Its instruments will study how far prebiotic chemistry may have progressed.”
Titan, like Earth, has a nitrogen-based atmosphere. It is the second largest moon in our solar system and is larger than the planet Mercury. It orbits Saturn approximately 1.4 billion kilometres (886 million miles) from the Sun. The moon is a particularly desirable location for a scientific mission as the weather, surface processes, complex organics, energy and water are similar to those that are believed to have sparked life on Earth. Simply put, if we are going to find life outside of Earth within our own solar system, it’s going to be on Titan.