- NASA is planning to send a drone helicopter mission named ‘Dragonfly’ on the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan.
- Dragonfly, a 450 kg car-sized quadcopter having eight rotors, is slated to launch in 2026 and arrive at its destination in 2034
- It will land near the equator, at an area called the “Shangri-La Dune Fields.” These dune fields are similar to dune fields in Namibia.
- It has a projected mission length of 2.7 years. Dragonfly will travel more than 175 km. That means it will travel much more distance than any wheeled robot ever has.
- Dragonfly is powered by Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG), a type of radioisotope thermoelectric generator using radioactive plutonium to generate heat.
- Titan is the largest satellite of Saturn and the second largest (after Ganymede of Jupiter) in the solar system.
- It was discovered by Christian Huygens in 1655. In 1944, Gerard Kuiper discovered that Titan has an atmosphere.
- Titan is the only satellite in the solar system with an atmosphere of its own. Nitrogen is the main component in Titan’s atmosphere.
- The atmosphere is four times denser at the surface than the atmosphere at the surface of Earth and the gravity is about one-seventh of the gravity on Earth.
- Light signals from Earth take 43 minutes to reach Titan.
- Titan attracted the interest because in many ways it is similar to Earth in its early pgase. Thus, it may hold some clues into how life developed on our planet.
- Titan has a nitrogen-based atmosphere like Earth, but unlike Earth, it has clouds and rain of methane instead of water.
- Some think that it could even harbor a strange type of life, based not on liquid water, but on liquid hydrocarbons.
- Titan is bigger than the planet Mercury and as geographically diverse as Earth.
- The average temperature of -179C (-290F) means that mountains are made of ice, and liquid methane assumes many of the roles played by water on Earth.
- Titan has wind, rivers, seas and lakes, just like Earth. But on Titan, the rivers and lakes are full of liquid hydrocarbons.
- It has thick, methane-rich atmosphere
- According to Lori Glaze, NASA’s planetary science division director, Dragonfly will provide “the opportunity to discover the processes that were present on early Earth and possibly even the conditions that might harbor life today”
Purpose of the Mission
- Dragonfly carries instruments that can investigate the moon’s atmosphere and the water-ammonia ocean thought to lie beneath its surface.
- It will also search for chemical evidence of past or present life.
- Some possible instruments are listed here:
- DraMS (Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer), to identify chemical components, especially those relevant to biological processes.
- DraGNS (Dragonfly Gamma-Ray and Neutron Spectrometer), to identify the composition of surface and air samples.
- DraGMet (Dragonfly Geophysics and Meteorology Package), suite of meteorological sensors and a seismometer.
- DragonCam (Dragonfly Camera Suite), a set of microscopic and panoramic cameras to image Titan’s terrain and landing sites that are scientifically interesting.
Other Missions to Titan
- The first spacecraft to explore Titan, Pioneer 11, flew through the Saturn system on Sept. 1, 1979. Astronomers on Earth had previously studied Titan’s temperature, and calculated its mass, and Pioneer 11 confirmed those characteristics.
- When the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft passed through the Saturn system in 1980 and 1981, they couldn’t see Titan’s surface because of its hazy atmosphere. Voyager did, however, reveal that Titan had traces of acetylene, ethane, and propane, along with other organic molecules, and that its atmosphere was primarily nitrogen.
- Voyager 1 also provided a measurement of Titan’s surface temperature and air pressure, as well as the moon’s radius, revealing Titan to be the second largest moon in the solar system.
- The Cassini-Huygens mission spacecraft became the first human-made object to orbit Saturn in 2004. Almost immediately, Cassini began observing Titan.
- The Huygens probe detached from Cassini and parachuted through Titan’s atmosphere, landing on the surface on Jan. 14, 2005—the first landing of a probe in the outer solar system.
- Huygens collected images and atmospheric data during its descent as well as from the surface, and transmitted that data to Cassini, which relayed the data to Earth.
- Cassini performed 127 close flybys of Titan over 13 years, and studies it closely using radar and infrared instruments. It give scientists a detailed view of the moon’s surface and complex atmosphere.
- Cassini-Huygens discovered that Titan has clouds, rain, lakes and rivers of liquid hydrocarbons, as well as a subsurface ocean of salty water.
- Titan Saturn System Mission (TSSM) was a joint NASA–ESA proposed mission for the exploration of Saturn and its moons Titan and Enceladus.
- TSSM was proposed to launch in 2020.
(Sources: NASA.gov, BBC News, UniverseToday.com)