With other spacecraft providing tantalizing clues as to what Saturn’s moon, Titan, may be like — NASA are currently working on plans to firm up the design for their Dragonfly spacecraft. This spacecraft would use new drone technology, combined with special instruments used on Mars, to learn more about Saturn’s unexplored moon.
As Space reports, at some point this year, scientists with NASA will decide whether their Dragonfly spacecraft plans for Titan will see the light of day. They currently have to choose between funding for this project or another one, one which would see the contents of a comet extracted and studied.
Melissa Trainer — a NASA scientist and the deputy principal investigator behind the Dragonfly mission — has explained that despite how incredible the mission to Saturn’s moon Titan may be, it is nevertheless something that is absolutely doable by modern engineering standards.
“At first blush, I think a lot of people think Dragonfly sounds like the literal meaning of incredible. Not only is this an incredibly exciting concept with amazing, compelling science, but also, it is doable — it’s feasible from an engineering standpoint.”
If NASA do decide to begin the Dragonfly project, this would see spacecraft launched in 2025, with its arrival date on Titan coming in the year 2034. Choosing to explore Titan would be phenomenal for many reasons, including the fact that Saturn’s moon is quite similar to Earth in many ways — but with some notable differences.
For instance, while the vast landscape of Earth is mainly one of rock and large bodies of water, Titan’s landscape consists of water, ice, and organic compounds. And while the sun creates the growth of life on Earth, on Titan it produces strange chemical reactions in the moon’s upper atmosphere. These reactions create organic molecules that drench Titan’s surface, very similar to how rain falls on Earth.
Most of what scientists currently know about Titan has come from studying data from both the Cassini mission and the Huygens probe — which is all the more reason for sending the Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s moon, according to Elizabeth “Zibi” Turtle, the principal investigator for Dragonfly. After all, Cassini was never able to get a good look at the surface of Titan due to its thick atmosphere — and the Huygens probe was completely spent by the time it reached the surface of Titan. The latter’s battery gave out only hours after it had landed. Turtle elaborated on the revelations that these two earlier projects had provided to researchers.
“We didn’t know how Titan worked as a system before Cassini got there. We had tantalizing hints, but Cassini and Huygens really took it from being this mysterious moon to being a place that is incredibly familiar. Cassini really showed us Titan as a world and how it works and the different processes that are acting on it.”
Scientists also know that there are an abundance of organic compounds on Titan, but Cassini and Huygens were unable to verify what these might be — and the chemistry of Saturn’s moon is currently unknown. Dragonfly, however, would be able to find out what these organic compounds are, which would enable scientists to learn much more about the surface of this mysterious moon.
The team behind the Dragonfly mission recently submitted their report and their plans in December. Later in the year, they will learn whether NASA will be going ahead and sending the Dragonfly spacecraft to study Saturn’s moon in much greater detail.