The mission of a lifetime: a drone on Titan in 2034 (Update)

Elizabeth "Zibi" Turtle, head of the Dragonfly mission to explore Titan,  in her laboratory in Laurel, Maryland
Elizabeth "Zibi" Turtle, head of the Dragonfly mission to explore Titan, in her laboratory in Laurel, Maryland
Elizabeth Turtle was overjoyed when, on June 26, she received a call from NASA: her project to send a drone quadcopter to Titan, Saturn's largest moon, was given the green light, which came with a budget of nearly a billion dollars.

But the launch of "Dragonfly" won't happen until 2026—surely a frustrating detail, given she has been studying Titan for 15 years?

"It's not going to feel like a long time, it's gonna go very quickly, because there's just so many things we need to do," says "Zibi" Turtle, 52, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, a massive research and development center outside Washington that employs 7,000 people.

The 1,300-pound (590 kilogram) drone won't land on Titan—nearly one billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) from Earth, until 2034. Isn't this a pretty long time?

"The outer solar system is a distant place," Turtle explains calmly. She seems surprised by the question.

"It definitely takes a certain amount of patience to explore the outer solar system."

The pace of planetary science is nothing like that of most other scientific disciplines. The distances are so far, and the robots we send so sophisticated, that researchers will generally dedicate their lives to a mere handful of missions.

A model of the Dragonfly drone copter, which will land on Titan in 2034
A model of the Dragonfly drone copter, which will land on Titan in 2034

Educated at MIT and the University of Arizona, Turtle remembers the first cursory images of Titan, taken by the Hubble space telescope in the 1990s. The researcher was among the first people to receive closer pictures of Titan sent in 2004 by the Cassini probe—which had itself been launched seven years prior.

"That was fascinating, to see clouds on another planet," Turtle recalls. "And we had no idea what was on the surface. We could just see dark and bright areas."

The European Huygens probe, dropped to the surface by Cassini, managed to send some close-up images before dying. The world stared, stupefied, at river channels crossing Titan's surface.

"That was a real breakthrough," Turtle adds.

Over the next few years, Titan began to take shape: a strange celestial body with surface temperatures of around -290 degrees Fahrenheit (-179 degrees Celsius). It's larger than both Mercury and our Moon, with a crust made of water ice and crossed by rivers and lakes of flowing liquid methane.

Winds blow, clouds move, and it rains (methane) over the valleys, dunes and mountains that make up the moon's surface. Cold volcanoes might even spew water as their lava.

One of the first images of Titan, sent by the Huygens probe during its descent to the moon's surface in January 2005
One of the first images of Titan, sent by the Huygens probe during its descent to the moon's surface in January 2005

A primitive Earth

"That's what so strange, right? Because Titan has such different materials. And yet, it has a very Earth-like geology," Turtle muses.

Scientists believe that conditions on Titan are similar to those on the early Earth, before the first life forms appeared. They suspect the liquid methane could play the same role as water in making the jump between chemistry and biology.

Dragonfly, which will serve as a mini-chemistry laboratory, will fly from one site to another for years, searching for complex carbon-based molecules—what researchers call life's building blocks.

The molecules collected from an ancient riverbed may be different from those that never got wet. All traces of Earth's primitive history have been erased. Titan could offer a journey through time.

And if Dragonfly finds nothing?

Planetologist Elizabeth "Zibi" Turtle wants to be in the control room when the drone finally launches
Planetologist Elizabeth "Zibi" Turtle wants to be in the control room when the drone finally launches

"There's no way we won't learn something from Titan," Turtle replies, without a trace of doubt. "No matter what we find, it will tell us something."

Planetary exploration has taught Turtle that "the solar system is more creative than our imaginations."

"There are always surprises," she adds.

Now her team needs to finish designing and start building Dragonfly: four pairs of rotors, a miniature nuclear generator, a lithium-ion battery, 10 cameras, two sampling drills and four scientific instruments.

Hundreds of scientists and engineers from different institutions are involved in the project.

Mission systems engineer Ken Hibbard has worked countless nights and weekends for months. He knows he will grow old with the project.

Chief Dragonfly engineer Ken Hibbard says that "a little bit of your soul" goes into every mission project
Chief Dragonfly engineer Ken Hibbard says that "a little bit of your soul" goes into every mission project

"You invest so much of your time and energy, a little bit of your soul goes into every one of these concepts," he says.

"It's more than two of us. It's hundreds of people that come together and make things happen. And no one wants to let anybody else down."

He will probably be in the control center in 2026 for the launch. Turtle, on the other hand, wants to attend the launch in person, to witness the rocket take off with Dragonfly on board.

"That would be the plan," she says.


Explore further

NASA will fly a drone to Titan to search for life

© 2019 AFP

Citation: The mission of a lifetime: a drone on Titan in 2034 (Update) (2019, July 4) retrieved 22 August 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2019-07-mission-lifetime-drone-titan.html
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.
1 shares

Feedback to editors

User comments

Jul 05, 2019
Articles published should be removed from the Internet how would "the truth" about Titan moon was "properly" apologized.

Before Cassini-Huygens
https://science.s...d-fly-by "Sea of oil seen on Titan / DS1 Asteriod fly-by"
https://www.natur...374238a0 "Tidal effects of disconnected hydrocarbon seas on Titan" ...

After Cassini-Huygens
https://www.esa.i...lideshow
https://www.space...s/2.html ...

Jul 05, 2019
Where there is rain and abundant organic chemicals there could easily be life.

Jul 05, 2019
well jax, when you say it like that?
it surely sounds easy you betcha

however (oh that word!)
a century now?
trying to recreate life
from the chemical reactions
to trigger the processes of pre-organic chemistry
that might result in the precursors to biology?
it turns out not to be as easy
as we'd hoped

it is a common error
counting your chickens
before the eggs are laid
& hatched

a perfect example of counting your fancied profits before your hens have been sucessfully covered by your rooster!

there are a lot of "capon"planets orbiting our Sun
will Titan eventually also prove to be barren?
don't set yourself up for disappointment as every clickbait headline & crackpot woomonger claims
"Proof of Alien Life!"
for sure this time
all the other claims we made were just practice

"we promise. this time will be the real deal"

"proof? we don't need mo stinking proof!"

"all we need to do to make a quick buck?"
"is to convince you to believe"

Jul 05, 2019
What are you babbling about?

Jul 06, 2019
This IEEE has about the best technical description, complete with some important operational details, that I could find:

https://spectrum....tocopter

The low gravity and dense atmosphere make flight-based exploration an attractive option, and the plutonium power source also provides heat for the drone.

From her CV, Dr. Turtle is probably in her early fifties. By 2034, she'll probably be in her mid-sixties. The context of a human life is an important part of these big missions: Vīta brevis, ars longa ...


Jul 07, 2019
Titan in a Lifetime

Rrwillsj
Well jax, when you say it like that
It surely sounds easy you betcha
However
Oh that word
A century now
Trying to recreate life
From the chemical reactions
To trigger the processes of pre-organic chemistry
That might result in the precursors to biology
It turns out not to be as easy
As we'd hoped
It is a common error
Counting your chickens
Before the eggs are laid
& hatched
A perfect example
Of counting your fancied profits
Before your hens have been sucessfully covered by your rooster
There are a lot of
Capon planets orbiting our Sun
Will Titan eventually also prove to be barren
Don't set yourself up for disappointment
As every clickbait headline & crackpot woomonger claims
Proof of Alien Life
For sure this time
All the other claims we made were just practice
We promise. this time will be the real deal
Proof
We don't need mo stinking proof
All we need to do to make a quick buck
Is to convince you to believe

For rrwillsj
Not one lifetime has passed

Jul 07, 2019
Titan in a Lifetime - By rrwillsj

However
Oh that word
A century now
Trying to recreate life
From the chemical reactions
To trigger the processes of pre-organic chemistry
That might result in the precursors to biology

For rrwillsj
Titan in a Lifetime is the best yet
Not one lifetime has passed
Thanks for the complement


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