Scientists have long been curious about Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, and now an exciting new project known as Dragonfly is being seriously considered by NASA, which would see a quadcopter zipping around the surface of the moon and exploring Titan in-depth.
One of the biggest advantages of using a quadcopter, which is very similar to drones on Earth, is that it would have four stacked rotors on it, which would make it possible to move extremely quickly around Titan while taking measurements and also recording specific places that might be of interest later to scientists.
A group of scientists from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) has developed the Dragonfly project which has intrigued NASA so much that the quadcopter idea is now one of the top two projects that the agency will be deciding on it when it comes to their upcoming New Frontiers mission.
The Dragonfly itself is reported to be quite small at just two meters long and may be much more suitable for exploration of Saturn’s moon Titan than other objects that have previously been considered as candidates, such as rovers and balloons. As geologist Catherine Neish explained, the idea of a drone hovering over the surface of Titan is one which has gripped the imagination of scientists, as Phys.org report.
“There’s something very simple about having a little drone flying around Titan. It’s clever in a way that people weren’t expecting and, I think, it’s audacious and exciting – and realistic.”
Researcher sets eyes on Saturn’s largest moon https://t.co/Mawp3li9ND
— Phys.org Space News (@physorg_space) February 23, 2018
While the Huygens probe was able to briefly capture hazy images of Titan’s surface in 2005, these only served to make scientists even more curious about the rest of Saturn’s moon, according to Neish, who likened the images to just one small piece of a vast puzzle.
“It’s like landing on a London street and saying you’ve seen the whole Earth.”
Due to the distance of Titan from the Sun, using solar power would be completely out of the question for the Dragonfly. Because of this, scientists have decided that powering the quadcopter by plutonium would be the best possible method for getting the device up and running and would be employing the use of a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, something that was also used by the Cassini space probe as well as the Curiosity rover on Mars.
The plutonium-powered Dragonfly would be able to explore many kilometers of Saturn’s moon with nothing but an overnight charge, and it is estimated that during the day the quadcopter would easily be able to navigate over hundreds of kilometers.
If NASA does approve the new mission with Dragonfly, during the first two years it would spend the majority of its time taking various measurements, which would include determining the habitability of Titan along with its organic chemistry. It would also study more about the moon’s conditions on its surface as well as its atmosphere and even perform seismology experiments.
NASA Invests in Concept Development for Missions to Comet, Saturn Moon Titan https://t.co/ewRc9XHTKd
— Conquest Space (@conquest__space) February 23, 2018
As Catherine Neish explained, the potential for exploration with this quadcopter cannot be underestimated when it comes to learning more about Saturn’s largest moon.
“The chemistry is going to be amazing but I’m really interested in what Titan looks like. I’m guessing it’s just this weirdly wonderful world that looks like Earth – a strange, frozen sedimentary place – but with all the wrong ingredients.”
Scientists believe that on the surface of Titan there may be ethane and methane rivers, which would run at a very chilly -200 degrees Celsius, as well as lakes comprised of hydrocarbon that are frozen.
If scientists do get their wish and NASA chooses the Dragonfly project, by the year 2025 the quadcopter could be in operation, and by around 2030 it will have reached Saturn’s moon Titan, where the real exploration can begin.