APL proposes Dragonfly mission to explore potential habitable sites on Saturn's largest moon

August 24, 2017 by Khadija Elkharbibi, Johns Hopkins University
The Dragonfly dual-quadcopter, shown twice here in an artist’s rendering, could make multiple flights to explore diverse locations as it characterizes the habitability of Titan's environment. Credit: JHUAPL/Mike Carroll

The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory has submitted a proposal to NASA outlining a daring New Frontiers-class mission concept that would use an instrumented, radioisotope-powered dual-quadcopter to explore potential habitable sites where life could be developed on Saturn's largest moon, Titan.

"Seems pretty straightforward," quipped Dragonfly project manager Peter Bedini in a video presentation of the proposal.

The concept, called Dragonfly, would capitalize on the rapid advances made in recent years to autonomous aerial systems—sometimes referred to as the "drone revolution." The increased reliability and capability these systems would enable Dragonfly to make numerous flights, moving from one geologic setting to another on the moon's surface.

Titan has diverse, carbon-rich chemistry on a surface dominated by water ice, as well as an interior ocean. It is one of a number of "ocean worlds" in our solar system that hold the ingredients for life, and the rich organic material that covers the moon is undergoing chemical processes that might be similar to those on early Earth. Dragonfly would take advantage of Titan's dense, flight-enabling atmosphere to visit multiple sites by landing on safe terrain, and then carefully navigate to more challenging landscapes.

"This is the kind of experiment we can't do in the laboratory because of the time scales involved," said APL's Elizabeth Turtle, principal investigator for the Dragonfly mission. "Mixing of rich, organic molecules and liquid water on the surface of Titan could have persisted over very long timescales. Dragonfly is designed to study the results of Titan's experiments in prebiotic chemistry."

Credit: Johns Hopkins University

With Titan's dense atmosphere and low gravity, flight is substantially easier than on Earth, giving Dragonfly a very broad range of capability. While there is enough sunlight at Titan's surface to see, there is not enough to use solar power efficiently, so Dragonfly would be powered by a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, or MMRTG.

At each site, Dragonfly would sample the surface and atmosphere with a suite of carefully selected science instruments that will characterize the habitability of Titan's environment, investigate how far prebiotic chemistry has progressed, and search for chemical signatures indicative of water- and/or hydrocarbon-based life. These measurements include:

  • Mass spectrometry, which would reveal the composition of the surface and the atmosphere;
  • Gamma-ray spectrometry, which would measure the composition of the shallow sub-surface;
  • Meteorology and geophysics sensors, which would measure atmospheric conditions such as wind, pressure, temperature, as well as seismic activity and other factors; and
  • A camera suite that would characterize the geologic and physical nature of the moon's , and help find subsequent landing sites.

"We could take a lander, put it on Titan, take these four measurements at one place, and significantly increase our understanding of Titan and similar moons," said Bedini. "However, we can multiply the value of the mission if we add aerial mobility, which would enable us to access a variety of geologic settings, maximizing the science return and lowering mission risk by going over or around obstacles."

Later this fall, NASA is expected to select a few of the New Frontiers mission proposals for further study. Only one will be chosen for flight as the fourth mission in the planetary exploration program; the APL-led New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt was the first New Frontiers mission ever selected. Final selection is expected in mid-2019.

Explore further: Titan ripe for drone invasion

Related Stories

Titan ripe for drone invasion

May 5, 2017

With its dense and hydrocarbon-rich atmosphere, Titan has been a subject of interest for many decades. And with the success of the Cassini-Huygens mission, which began exploring Saturn and its system of moons back in 2004, ...

NASA sees Titan's potential for studying prebiotic chemistry

June 19, 2014

(Phys.org) —NASA is proposing a mission study to open up the mysteries of Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. The reason is compelling enough. Titan would serve as a vast reservoir of information about one of the most earth-like ...

Image: Titan flyby 22 April 2017

April 25, 2017

In the early hours of Saturday morning, the international Cassini–Huygens mission made its final close flyby of Saturn's largest moon, Titan, coming within 1000 km of the atmosphere-clad world.

Cassini heads toward final close encounter with Titan

April 19, 2017

NASA's Cassini spacecraft will make its final close flyby of Saturn's haze-enshrouded moon Titan this weekend. The flyby marks the mission's final opportunity for up-close observations of the lakes and seas of liquid hydrocarbons ...

Recommended for you

Superflares from young red dwarf stars imperil planets

October 18, 2018

The word "HAZMAT" describes substances that pose a risk to the environment, or even to life itself. Imagine the term being applied to entire planets, where violent flares from the host star may make worlds uninhabitable by ...

Blazar's brightness cycle confirmed by NASA's Fermi mission

October 18, 2018

A two-year cycle in the gamma-ray brightness of a blazar, a galaxy powered by a supermassive black hole, has been confirmed by 10 years of observations from NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. The findings were announced ...

Astronomers catch red dwarf star in a superflare outburst

October 18, 2018

New observations by two Arizona State University astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have caught a red dwarf star in a violent outburst, or superflare. The blast of radiation was more powerful than any such outburst ...

Magnetic fields may be the key to black hole activity

October 17, 2018

Collimated jets provide astronomers with some of the most powerful evidence that a supermassive black hole lurks in the heart of most galaxies. Some of these black holes appear to be active, gobbling up material from their ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.