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NASA gives go-ahead for flying drone to explore Saturn’s moon Titan – Astronomy Now

Artist’s idea of the Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s moon Titan. Credit: NASA

NASA officials announced that the company will transfer forward with the development of a plutonium-powered robotic quadcopter drone to explore Saturn’s moon Titan, a hazy world coated with dunes and methane lakes that scientists say is harking back to the ancient Earth.

The Dragonfly mission will launch in 2026 and reach Titan in 2034, descend by means of its thick environment and deploy a rotorcraft to make a number of hops across the moon’s alien floor over a 2.7-year mission, surveying dune fields and craters.

“Titan is a very Earth-like place, despite the fact that the materials are very different at this very low temperature, and the bedrock is water ice and the sand dunes are made of organic sand grains, and the liquid on the surface is liquid methane,” stated Elizabeth Turtle, principal investigator for the Dragonfly mission on the Johns Hopkins University Utilized Physics Laboratory.”

Most of what scientists find out about Titan got here from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft and a European Area Agency probe named Huygens, which made the primary touchdown on Saturn’s largest moon in 2005.

Cassini made 127 flybys of Titan in its 13-year tour of Saturn before its mission led to September 2017, unveiling the moon’s surface for the first time to see lakes of methane with rugged shorelines, streams and sand dunes. NASA’s Voyager probes could not see by way of Titan’s hazy veneer once they flew by Saturn in 1980 and 1981.

“One of the great things about Dragonfly is with the cameras it has looking forward and downward, as Dragonfly is flying over the surface, it’s going to be taking pictures and sending them back to Earth,” stated Curt Niebur, lead programme scientist for NASA’s line of New Frontiers missions. “So we’ll truly get the expertise of flying together with Dragonfly, wanting down at this alien, yet very familiar type of surface that has these rivers and mountains.

“I think that’s going to be a tremendous experience for the public, and I think everybody’s really going to enjoy it,” Niebur stated.

The colorful globe of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, passes in entrance of the planet and its rings in this true shade snapshot from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Credit score: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Area Science Institute

Titan’s thick environment makes getting down to the bottom tough, however as soon as there, Titan’s soupy environment will make for a superb flying surroundings, scientists stated.

“Flying on Titan is actually easier than flying on Earth,” Turtle stated. “The atmosphere is four times denser, at the surface, than the atmosphere at the surface of Earth, and (Titan’s) gravity is about a seventh of the gravity here on Earth. So it’s actually easier to fly on Titan. If you put on wings, you’d be able to fly on Titan.”

Cassini found climate techniques on Titan, together with rain storms and winds that seem to generate waves in the methane lakes.

“You get the rain coming down, collecting into really larger lakes, the size of Earth’s Great Lakes, filled to great depth with all this liquid methane. and it really creates a kind of weather cycle, just like we have on Earth, just without the liquid water,” Niebur stated.

However many questions about Titan stay unanswered. It’s the Solar System’s solely moon with a dense environment — made primarily of nitrogen — however Titan’s orange haze hides its floor from typical cameras. Cassini peered by means of the environment with an imaging radar to reveal big land plenty, oceans and different surface features.

The temperature at Titan’s floor hovers round -184 degrees Celsius (-300 degrees Fahrenheit), much too chilly for liquid water on the surface. However there’s evidence that Titan harbours an underground ocean of liquid water.

The Dragonfly drone will carry cameras, drills, seismic and weather sensors, and spectrometers to look at the composition of Titan’s rocks and soil, amassing 4 primary forms of measurements. Vacuum-like suction units on the craft’s touchdown skids will suck up floor material for analysis in an on-board miniature oven, which can sense any natural compounds or biosignatures in the soil.

A plutonium power supply, referred to as a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, or MMRTG, will cost the craft’s battery to power the devices, eight electrically-driven rotors and a high-gain antenna to beam knowledge immediately to Earth.

“What really excites me about this mission is the fact that Titan has all of the key ingredients needed for life,” stated Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s science mission directorate. “Liquid water and liquid methane, we’ve got complicated organic carbon-based molecules, and we’ve the power that we know is required for life.

“So we have, on Titan, an opportunity to observe the processes that were present on early Earth, when life began to form, and possibly even conditions that may harbour life today,” Zurbuchen stated. “We may be able to look for biosignatures there today.”

Dragonfly’s mobility will permit it to travel up to 80 kilometres (110 miles) throughout Titan over the course of 20 or more hops.

Concerning the measurement of a Mars rover, the flying drone will permit scientists to explore a wider range on Titan than a mission restricted to the surface. Dragonfly will first contact down in Titan’s equatorial dune fields, then journey to a crater to examine a region the place remote sensing observations from Cassini recommend the presence of water ice outcrops.

And in contrast to a rover on the floor, an instrumented drone won’t be stopped or delayed by obstacles like rocks and steep slopes.

NASA chosen Dragonfly over a competing proposal named the Comet Astrobiology Exploration Pattern Return, or CAESAR, mission to grow to be the fourth mission in the company’s New Frontiers programme. CAESAR would have flown a spacecraft to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the identical comet first explored by Europe’s Rosetta mission, and picked up a sample from its nucleus for return to Earth.

The three previous New Frontiers missions developed by NASA are all presently working in area.

The New Horizons spacecraft launched in 2006 and carried out the primary up-close flyby of Pluto in 2015, then continued farther into the outer solar system to encounter a 22-mile-long (35-kilometer) world within the Kuiper Belt named Ultima Thule on 1 January this yr.

NASA’s Juno orbiter launched in 2011 and arrived at Jupiter in 2016 to research the enormous planet’s environment and magnetosphere, and the OSIRIX-Rex mission lifted off in 2016 and reached the asteroid Bennu late last yr, where the spacecraft will retrieve a pattern for return to Earth.

Company officials introduced Dragonfly and CAESAR as finalists from an preliminary record of 12 mission proposals for the fourth New Frontiers mission in December 2017. NASA is committing up to $850 million to design and develop the Dragonfly mission, excluding launch and operations prices.

When these expenses are absolutely accounted, the mission is predicted to value around $1 billion.

Artist’s idea of the Dragonfly car at Titan. Credit score: NASA/JHUAPL

“Dragonfly will be the first drone lander with the capability to fly over 100 miles through Titan’s thick atmosphere,” stated NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “Titan is in contrast to some other place in our Solar System, and probably the most comparable to early Earth.

“This revolutionary mission would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago,” Bridenstine stated. “A great nation does great things. We will launch Dragonfly to explore the frontiers of human knowledge for the benefit of all humanity.”

But Dragonfly is a risky mission.

“This mission is bold,” Zurbuchen stated. “We do these bold missions that change not only what we know, but how we think what’s possible that we can do.”

Dragonfly might be built and managed at APL, which oversaw the development of the New Horizons probe and NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, which  launched last yr and has already set a report for the closest spacecraft to the Solar.

“When we got the proposal for this mission, the first proposal, the science was so compelling that we looked at all the risks that were there — and there were quite a number of them — and we just basically said we want to give them a chance,” Zurbuchen stated.

In a conference call with reporters Thursday, NASA officers mentioned a number of of the early risks they identified early with the Dragonfly idea, such as the potential for hydrocarbons to clog the probe’s science instruments.

“Titan is rich in hydrocarbons,” Niebur stated. “Usually, when we have a NASA mission, we are struggling to find trace amounts of these things, and Titan has so many that the concern was raised that that vacuum cleaner system that sucks up the sample and deliver it to the instrument could get clogged or contaminated.”

The Dragonfly group redesigned the sample supply system during the last year-and-a-half, throughout a preliminary “Phase A” research funded by NASA.

“All these risks, 10 risks or so, that were there were eliminated,” Zurbuchen stated. “So it’s a team that has proven itself, a team that’s highly diverse in all dimensions, and therefore innovative, and brought together by a strong principal investigator.”

“One of the things about Dragonfly that is not necessarily apparent at first sight is that, while this is a new way of exploring a different planet, this is actually technology that is very mature on Earth,” Turtle stated. “There’s so much technology development in terms of rotorcraft here on Earth, in terms of autonomous flight, and indeed a lot of the instrumentation that we will fly on Dragonfly is based on instrumentation that is sitting on the surface of Mars right now, that has flown in space before. So really what we’re doing with Dragonfly is innovation not invention.”

Turtle’s staff initially proposed launching Dragonfly in 2025, but NASA is giving the mission an additional yr to put together for launch.

“We felt at NASA … that the team could benefit greatly by some additional time to work through some of the challenges,” stated Lori Glaze, head of NASA’s planetary science division. “There was a very tight schedule, and we thought having a little extra time would help with that.”

The unique Dragonfly trajectory featured a flyby of Earth in 2026, one yr after its launch in 2025, adopted by further gravity assist flybys with Venus and Earth to slingshot towards Saturn, concentrating on a direct entry into Titan’s environment in 2034.

With a launch in 2026, engineers have deleted the primary Earth flyby from the trajectory, and Dragonfly will nonetheless reach Titan in 2034.

The spacecraft will plunge into Titan’s environment for a two-hour descent, using friction and a parachute to decelerate earlier than the rotorcraft releases from its aeroshell and flies itself to the floor, touchdown immediately on its skids.

Dragonfly’s exploration will probably be restricted to the equatorial areas of Titan, away from its methane oceans. The northern hemisphere, the place Titan’s largest seas are situated, will probably be in winter when the spacecraft arrives, with the Solar and Earth under the horizon.

“The big question that remains about the materials on the surface of Titan is the composition of the solid materials,” Turtle stated.

The Cassini spacecraft’s radar was in a position to resolve Titan’s methane seas and determine their chemical composition.

“The big outstanding question is what the nature of these solid surface materials are, and that’s where the keys to understanding the prebiotic chemistry that is so abundant on Titan lies, in the solid surface materials,” Turtle stated.

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Comply with Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.