For its next mission in our solar system, NASA plans to fly a drone copter to Saturn’s largest moon Titan in search of the building blocks of life, the space agency said Thursday.
The Dragonfly mission, which will launch in 2026 and land in 2034, will send a rotorcraft to fly to dozens of locations across the icy moon, which has a substantial atmosphere and is viewed by scientists as an equivalent of very early-era Earth.
If all goes according to plan, Dragonfly will launch in 2026 and land on Titan eight years later, NASA officials said.
The probe will then spend at least 2.5 years cruising around the 3,200-mile-wide (5,150 kilometers) moon, making two dozen flights that cover a total of about 110 miles (180 km).
It is the only celestial body besides our planet known to have liquid rivers, lakes and seas on its surface, though these contain hydrocarbons like methane and ethane, not water.
“Visiting this mysterious ocean world could revolutionize what we know about life in the universe, ” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine.
“This cutting-edge mission would have been unthinkable even just a few years ago, but we’re now ready for Dragonfly’s amazing flight.”
The 10-foot-long (3 meters) Dragonfly will gather a variety of data at each of its stops. Such work will help scientists learn more about Titan, the only solar system body other than Earth known to host stable bodies of liquid on its surface.
Titan’s surface lakes, rivers and seas aren’t composed of water, however: The frigid moon’s climate system is based on hydrocarbons, in particular methane and ethane.
“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,” NASA said in a statement.
“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.”
The craft will land first at the equatorial “Shangri-La” dune, exploring the region in short trips before building up to longer “leapfrog” flights of five miles (8 kilometers).
It will stop along compelling areas to collect samples before finally reaching the moon’s Selk impact crater, where there is evidence of past liquid water, organic materials and energy: a potential primordial stew.
The hope is the lander will eventually fly more than 108 miles (175 kilometers).
Titan’s atmosphere is made mostly of nitrogen, like Earth’s, but is four times denser.
Its clouds and rains are methane.
The mission is geared toward characterizing Titan’s chemistry in detail.
Complex organic molecules are known to swirl in the moon’s thick, nitrogen-dominated atmosphere, and some scientists think its hydrocarbon seas could host exotic forms of life.
Titan also hosts another potentially habitable environment — a buried ocean of liquid water, which sloshes beneath the moon’s icy crust.
The second-largest moon in the solar system, Titan has a thick water ice crust, beneath which is an ocean made primarily of water.
The underground ocean could harbor life as we know it, while the hydrocarbon lakes and seas on the moon’s surface could contain life forms that rely on different chemistries—or the body could be lifeless.
Titan is about 886 million miles (1.4 billion kilometers) from the Sun, with surface temperatures of around -290 degrees Fahrenheit (-179 degrees Celsius) and surface pressure about 50 percent higher than Earth.
Dragonfly will be nuclear powered, like NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity, the New Horizons Pluto probe and many other deep-space explorers.
Dragonfly will be the fourth mission in the New Frontiers program, following New Horizons, the Juno probe to Jupiter and the OSIRIS-REx asteroid-sampling mission.
Dragonfly’s development costs are capped at $850 million, though the mission’s total price tag, including launch, will probably top $1 billion.
The other finalist for the mid-2020s New Frontiers launch slot was the Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return (CAESAR) mission, which proposed snagging bits of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko — the same icy wanderer studied up close by Europe’s Rosetta mission.
Dragonfly won’t be the first craft to land on Titan.
That honor belongs to Europe’s Huygens probe, which touched down on the moon in January 2005.
Huygens traveled to the Saturn system with NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which orbited the ringed planet from mid-2004 through September 2017.