NASA Selects Quadcopter Dragonfly to Go to TITAN

We are going to Titan! Yesterday NASA announced a new mission, called Dragonfly, a rotorcopter New Frontiers Mission designed to go to Saturn’s moon Titan.

Published on 29th Jun, 2019

Hello Space Fans and welcome to another edition of Space Fan News. In this episode, we are going to Titan! Yesterday NASA announced a new mission, called Dragonfly, a mission designed to go to Saturn’s moon Titan. And we’re not talking about you’re run-of-the-mill rover, NASA plans to send a quadcopter to fly around to dozens of locations over hundreds of kilometers on the surface this amazing moon. Yesterday, NASA held a press conference announcing the selection of Dragonfly, a rotorcraft-lander expedition to Saturn’s large moon Titan as the next mission in its New Frontiers program. Titan is larger than the planet Mercury and is the second largest moon in our solar system. As it orbits Saturn, it is about 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 minus-290 degrees Fahrenheit (minus-179 Celsius). Its surface pressure, because of the atmosphere, is also 50% higher than Earth’s. Titan has a nitrogen-based atmosphere like Earth. Unlike Earth however, Titan has clouds and rain made of methane. Other organics are formed in the atmosphere and fall like light snow. For people interested in the question of life in our solar system (and who isn’t) we’ve discovered that Titan’s weather and surface processes have combined complex organics, energy, and water similar to those that may have sparked life on our planet. All of this maked this moon one of the more interesting places to go in the solar system. Dragonfly is scheduled to launch in 2026, about six years from now and will arrive eight years later on Titan in 2034. NASA is currently planning on a total mission length of 2.7 years for it’s baseline mission. Dragonfly is a risky choice for NASA because this has never been done before, but then that’s part of NASA’s DNA, isn’t it? Doing things that haven’t been done before. We have a lot of experience with driving rovers on Mars, but this is a different game altogether, because as you can imagine, there are huge technical challenges associated with flying a drone around the moon of a planet 1.2 billion kilometers away from Earth. So check this out: Dragonfly is an eight-bladed, counter-rotating propeller dual-quadcopter that will be able to cover tens of kilometers in under an hour. This is a real game-changer when it comes to new ways to explore the solar system. Compared to the slow-moving rovers, Dragonfly will be able to go farther than any planetary vehicle has ever gone. Drawing from decades of experience from drone technology here on Earth, Dragonfly will fly all over the place on Titan, land at selected areas to take samples and measurements, then fly somewhere else. It will first land at the equatorial dune fields known as “Shangri-La”, which are similar to the linear dunes in Namibia in southern Africa and offer a lot of cool different things to sample. Dragonfly will explore this region in short flights, building up to a series of longer “leapfrog” flights of up to 8 kilometers, stopping along the way to take samples from compelling areas with diverse geography. It will finally reach the Selk impact crater, where there is evidence of past liquid water, organics – the complex molecules that contain carbon, combined with hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen – and energy, which scientists believe makeup a good primordial soup for life. The lander will eventually fly more than 175 kilometers – nearly double the distance traveled to date by all the Mars rovers combined. Since Titan is far from the Sun and has a thick atmosphere, Dragonfly won’t be able to use solar power, instead it will use an MMTRG, or Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, to provide electricity for the vehicle and instruments. This is the same power source being used on the Curiosity rover on Mars right now. It will have onboard several instruments: a mass spectrometer to identify compounds in the soil, a gamma-ray spectrometer to measure bulk surface composition, meteorology sensors to monitor the atmosphere and surface weather conditions, and it will perform seismic experiments to detect subsurface activity. As I watched the press conference one question I had was whether the atmosphere of Titan would blow the rotocopter around or get methane rain and according to Dr. Zibi Turtle, the lead investigator of the mission said that Cassini gave lots of data on the weather patterns on Titan over the course of a Titan year, which is 29 Earth-years, the surface winds are low, less than 1 meter per second and the seasonal changes of Titan’s climate are such that they don’t expect methane rain. So from the experience of the Huygens lander from Cassini, they feel confident they know the weather patterns enough to operate the rotorcopter. The plan is to go one hop per full Titan day, which is 16 Earth days, the rotorcraft will travel from the initial landing site to cover areas several hundred kilometers over the course of the planned two year mission. The flight, data transmission and most science operations will be planned during the daytime hours on Titan (which is eight Earth days) which NASA says will give the rotorcraft planety of time during the Titan night to recharge. As I said before, Dragonfly is a New Frontiers mission, a class that includes the Mars InSight Lander and the Dawn Spacecraft. These missions are around the $850 million range. Juno and New Horizons, and OSIRIS-Rex are all alumni of this program as well. Dragonfly was chosen after what NASA describes as a “Shark Tank” like competition over CAESAR, a mission that would have grabbed a piece of a comet’s surface and bring it back. So exciting times ahead in the realm of planetary exploration: between the Europa Clipper mission and Dragonfly to Titan, I’m pretty psyched. Go Dragonfly! Well that’s it for this episode Space Fans, thanks to all Deep Astronomy Patreon Patrons who keep the lights on here, as well as OPT Telescopes, a world leader in telescopes and accessories for the amateur and professional astronomer. Thanks to all of you for watching and as always, Keep Looking Up! Read More: