NASA’s New Frontiers program, which funds several ambitious missions for new explorations in the solar system will be funding a mission which explores the surface of Titan, Saturn’s moon. The mission, Dragonfly which involves a drone-like lander received major funding.
Elizabeth “Zibi” Turtle, the principal investigator for the mission briefed that Dragonfly is about the size of the Mars rover and it will be able to fly around places on Titan. Its dimensions are 10 feet long and 10 feet wide which makes it look like a giant drone. Its eight rotors will be helping it to soar across the surface of Titan for 8 to 9 miles within an hour. It will make these travels once every 16 days. It will also scout future landing sites, sample the surface and observe the weather.
Since Titan’s gravity is only a seventh of the Earth and atmosphere is four times thicker, it makes the perfect conditions for flying. Dragonfly was one of the two finalists considered for funding. The other one, CAESAR, led by Steve Squyres from Cornell University aimed for bringing a sample of comet’s surface to Earth. However, NASA felt that the race for this mission is over, however it is open to future funding missions.
These two missions made through several rounds before the final decision was made. Missions funded by New Frontiers generally cost 850 million dollars USD which is costlier than InSight lander, 814 million USD or Dawn spacecraft, 500 million USD.
The New Frontiers program only funded three other missions till now. Juno spacecraft has been observing the atmosphere and magnetic field of Jupiter. New Horizons went past Pluto in 2015 and Kuiper Belt in 2018. And finally, OSIRIS-REx which is an asteroid sampling mission, currently orbiting the asteroid Bennu.
Similar to these missions, Dragonfly is expected to expand our vision of the solar system which is in this case, Titan. Its first glimpse was obtained by the Huygens probe that was carried by Cassini. It revealed that Titan had liquid methane on its surface, which makes it only the second body in the solar system to have liquid bodies on its surface apart from Earth.
The first target will be a sea of sand dunes which makes for a safe landing site. From there, it will make it’s way to the Selk crater. Scientists are also interested in knowing about the geology of Titan apart from the chemistry of the surface. Scientists are aware of the fact that Titan is a perfect place to know about the prebiotic chemistry which is an important step in knowing about the development of life. Although we have to wait for it as Dragonfly will be launching in 2026 and land on Titan in 2034.