Science

NASA's new mission, Dragonfly, will explore Saturn's moon Titan

NASA's new mission, Dragonfly, will explore Saturn's moon Titan”

A rotorcraft called "Dragonfly" will arrive at the Saturn's moon in 2034, looking for prebiotic chemical processes common on both Titan and Earth, which may lend clues to how life may have arisen on Earth, according to NASA.

Dragonfly, which has eight rotors and flies like a large drone, will explore a range of environments on Titan.

Dragonfly aims to launch in 2026 and land on Titan in 2034.

The space agency said Thursday Dragonfly will fly from location to location over Titan, exploring future potential landing sites.

Titan is unlike any other place in the solar system, and Dragonfly is like no other mission, said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASAs associate administrator for Science at the agencys Headquarters in Washington.

Dragonfly is the fourth solar system exploration mission selected under NASA's New Frontiers program, a series of missions including the New Horizons probe launched in 2006 to study Pluto and OSIRIS-REx, which launched in 2016 to study the rocky asteroid Bennu. Huygens revealed a complex world, covered in lakes of methane and ethane, filled with sandy dunes of organic materials, and with a complete methane cycle, analogous to Earth's water cycle.

We're going to Titan, and we're going in style.

Titan also hosts another potentially habitable environment - a buried ocean of liquid water, which sloshes beneath the moon's icy crust.

"Flying on Titan is actually easier than flying on Earth ... so it's the best way to travel, and it's the best way to go long distances", Turtle said during a NASA webcast. Mission planners expect Dragonfly to take a couple of dozen flights and fly a total of 110 miles over the course of its 2.7-Earth-year baseline mission. It's the second largest moon in the solar system.

Nasa said Dragonfly will first land on Titan's "Shangri-La" dune fields, similar to those in Namibia in southern Africa, making short flights around the region and collecting samples, before progressing to the Selk impact crater. One big difference has to do with the chilly weather: Average surface temperature is in the range of 290 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, or -180 degrees Celsius.

Dragonfly will be lead by Elizabeth Turtle, a planetary scientist based at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. The lander will eventually fly more than 108 miles (175 kilometers) - almost double the distance traveled to date by all the Mars rovers combined. "And then they drift down out of the atmosphere to the surface nearly like a light snow", says Curt Niebur, lead program scientist for NASA's New Frontiers Program.



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