Fifty years after Apollo 11, US space agency National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is gearing up for a whole new kind of moonshot. NASA has announced that its next target in the solar system is the unique, richly organic world Titan which is the Saturn’s largest moon.
Titan is the only solar system body other than Earth known to host stable bodies of liquid on it’s 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.
“Titan is unlike any other place in our solar system, and the most comparable to early Earth,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said at the teleconference.
And, to explore it, the agency will send a multi-rotor vehicle which it calls ‘Dragonfly’. It will help us investigate the organic chemistry, evaluate habitability and search for chemical signatures of past or even present life. These investigations on Titan may provide us with new insight into the origins of life on Earth. Dragonfly has been planned to launch in 2026. The 10-foot-long (3 meters) Dragonfly will gather a variety of data at each of its stops.
“Advancing our search for the building blocks of life, the Dragonfly mission will fly multiple sorties to sample and examine sites around Saturn’s icy moon,” a Nasa statement read.
After launch in 2026, it will take Dragonfly about eight years to reach Titan. In 2034, the spacecraft is expected to touch down in the moon’s dune fields and fly to dozens of different locations looking for prebiotic chemical processes common on both Titan and Earth.
This is going to be the first time ever for Nasa to fly a multi-rotor vehicle for science on another planet. Dragonfly has eight rotors and flies like a large drone.
Fly, #Dragonfly, fly! Our next destination in the solar system is Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, where our rotorcraft-lander will explore dozens of locations across the icy world. Discover why: https://t.co/GhopCqDjx4 pic.twitter.com/55AilAZ4ar
— NASA (@NASA) June 27, 2019
“It will take advantage of Titan’s dense atmosphere – four times denser than Earth’s – to become the first vehicle ever to fly its entire science payload to new places for repeatable and targeted access to surface materials,” the statement read.
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. Dragonfly could conceivably find evidence of Titan life, if the moon is indeed inhabited.
Dragonfly will land among Titan’s dunes, then make its way toward its final destination, the 50-mile-wide (80 km) Selk Crater. Selk is a particularly good place to study prebiotic chemistry and look for signs of life, NASA officials said. That’s because the three ingredients necessary for life as we know it — liquid water, organic molecules and energy — mixed during the impact that created the crater. (Titan’s bedrock is water ice.)
Dragonfly will be nuclear powered, like NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity, the New Horizons Pluto probe and many other deep-space explorers. Dragonfly’s development costs are capped at $850 million, though the mission’s total price tag, including launch, probably will top $1 billion