NASA confirms new Saturn moon mission

NASA has confirmed it will send a rotorcraft named “Dragonfly” to study Saturn’s moon Titan, which is rich in organic matter.

The craft will fly to dozens of locations on the moon’s surface to look for signs of chemical processes common on both Titan and Earth, which might be indicative of stages just before the development of life.

Saturn and one of its moons titan.
Saturn and its moon Titan. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

Dragonfly is expected to launch in 2028 and arrive at Titan in 2034.

The mission has progressed to the final design and construction stages. It has a total budget of $US3.35 billion. The project has been delayed 2 years and its budget doubled due to complications during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a NASA statement.

It will be the first mission to undertake planetary exploration using a rotorcraft-lander. Its design includes 8 rotors which help the craft fly like a drone.

Titan is Saturn’s largest moon and the second largest in the solar system, with a radius of about 2,575 km, compared to our Moon which has a radius of 1,737 km. Only Jupiter’s moon Ganymede is larger, with a radius of 2,634 km. Gravity on Titan is, however, less than on the Moon due to its lower density. Titan’s gravity is about 7 times less than on Earth.

Saturn’s moon is also the only moon known to have an atmosphere which is denser than Earth’s.

It’s thick, mostly nitrogen atmosphere and low gravity make a rotorcraft a promising tool for studying the planetary body.

Titan has an Earth-like cycle of liquids. On Earth, water appears in all its states: ice, liquid and vapour. On Titan, however, average temperatures are about -179°C. Instead of liquid water, it has lakes and clouds of hydrocarbons like methane.

It is one of the most promising worlds in our solar system for both studying potential life outside Earth, and hospitability for humans.

“Dragonfly is a spectacular science mission with broad community interest, and we are excited to take the next steps on this mission,” says Nicky Fox, the associate administrator of Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in the US. “Exploring Titan will push the boundaries of what we can do with rotorcraft outside of Earth.”

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