Titan is the largest moon of Saturn, the first discovered, and the subject of much speculative fiction in print and cinema. Now, at long last, humans are extending their reach out into the solar system to touch this frozen world.
It will be the first NASA has ever sent a flying science vehicle to another planet. An eight-rotor craft is being sent to the unique, richly organic world Titan. It’s called Dragonfly, and its ability to lift off the surface of Saturn’s icy moon and fly from place to place will allow it to visit dozens of promising locations on Titan looking for prebiotic chemical processes common to both Titan and Earth. It will launch in 2026, and arrive in 2034 after an eight year flight.
Flying like a large drone, Dragonfly take advantage of Titan’s thick atmosphere – four times more dense than ours – to become the first vehicle ever to fly its entire science payload to new places for repeatable and targeted access to surface materials. The Dragonfly baseline mission is planned to be about 2 years, 8 months.
Why Go to Titan?
Titan is an analog to the very early Earth. It’s such a good match, in fact, that NASA thinks it can provide some important clues to how life developed on our own planet. During its 2.7-year baseline mission, 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. Its instruments will study how far prebiotic chemistry may have progressed. They also will investigate the moon’s atmospheric and surface properties and its subsurface ocean and liquid reservoirs. Additionally, instruments will search for chemical evidence of past or extant life.
“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. This cutting-edge mission would have been unthinkable even just a few years ago, but we’re now ready for Dragonfly’s amazing flight.”
Picking a Nice Place to Land
Thirteen years’ worth of Cassini data allowed NASA to choose a calm weather period to land, a safe initial landing site and nearby scientifically interesting targets.
Dragonfly will first land at the equatorial “Shangri-La” dune fields, a site chosen for its diverse local geography. After exploring this region in a series of short flights, it will start taking longer hops of up to 5 miles (8 kilometers), finally reaching the Selk impact crater. NASA hopes to investigate that environment, rich in water and organic molecules. It has all the basics required for spontaneous generation of Life As We Know It – complex molecules that contain carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, and the energy they need to create new chemical interactions. The lander will eventually fly more than 108 miles (175 kilometers) – nearly double the distance traveled to date by all the Mars rovers combined.
“Titan is unlike any other place in the solar system, and Dragonfly is like no other mission,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for Science at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “It’s remarkable to think of this rotorcraft flying miles and miles across the organic sand dunes of Saturn’s largest moon, exploring the processes that shape this extraordinary environment. Dragonfly will visit a world filled with a wide variety of organic compounds, which are the building blocks of life and could teach us about the origin of life itself.”
Titan has a nitrogen-based atmosphere like Earth. Unlike Earth, Titan has clouds and rain of methane. Other organics are formed in the atmosphere and fall like light snow. The moon’s weather and surface processes have combined complex organics, energy, and water similar to those that may have sparked life on our planet.
Titan is larger than the planet Mercury and is the second largest moon in our solar system. As it orbits Saturn, it is about 886 million miles (1.4 billion kilometers) away from the Sun, about 10 times farther than Earth. Because it is so far from the Sun, its surface temperature is around -290 degrees Fahrenheit (-179 degrees Celsius). Its surface pressure is also 50 percent higher than Earth’s.
Dragonfly Origin Story
Dragonfly was selected as part of the agency’s New Frontiers program, which includes the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, Juno to Jupiter, and OSIRIS-RExto the asteroid Bennu. Dragonfly is led by Principal Investigator Elizabeth Turtle, who is based at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. New Frontiers supports missions that have been identified as top solar system exploration priorities by the planetary community. The program is managed by the Planetary Missions Program Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency’s Planetary Science Division in Washington.
“The New Frontiers program has transformed our understanding of the solar system, uncovering the inner structure and composition of Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere, discovering the icy secrets of Pluto’s landscape, revealing mysterious objects in the Kuiper belt, and exploring a near-Earth asteroid for the building blocks of life,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. “Now we can add Titan to the list of enigmatic worlds NASA will explore.”
For more information about Titan, visit: https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/moons/saturn-moons/titan/overview
Read more about NASA’s New Frontiers Program and missions at: https://planetarymissions.nasa.gov
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