NASA could approve dragonfly drone to explore Titan


A drone could soon explore the skies and surface of Saturn’s moon Titan.

The eight-bladed ‘dragonfly’ drone would fly from one region of Titan to the next, recharging while landed using its own electric generator.

It could investigate potentially habitable sites on the moon, which has methane and ethane lakes and rivers.

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The eight-bladed 'dragonfly' drone would fly from one region of Titan to the next, recharging while landed using its own electric generator 

The eight-bladed 'dragonfly' drone would fly from one region of Titan to the next, recharging while landed using its own electric generator 

The eight-bladed ‘dragonfly’ drone would fly from one region of Titan to the next, recharging while landed using its own electric generator 

‘It’s such a rich place to be able to explore in situ, and then it hands us the way to explore it,’ Dr Elizabeth Turtle, Dragonfly’s main investigator, told Space.com. 

Dr Turtle, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Research Laboratory in Maryland, is leading the team that’s proposing an in-depth exploration of Titan for NASA‘s New Frontiers mission program, a competition which funds midsize missions to explore the solar system.

Researchers want to take advantage of this opportunity to study Titan, as its methane and ethane chemistry could potentially lead to the rise of life.

It’s Titan’s thick atmosphere that would make such a mission possible.

Dragonfly wouldn't just fly from site to site, it could also drill and take samples, and examine the moon's surface. Sensors would allow it to track Titan's atmosphere and weather – which has a methane cycle instead of Earth's water cycle

Dragonfly wouldn't just fly from site to site, it could also drill and take samples, and examine the moon's surface. Sensors would allow it to track Titan's atmosphere and weather – which has a methane cycle instead of Earth's water cycle

Dragonfly wouldn’t just fly from site to site, it could also drill and take samples, and examine the moon’s surface. Sensors would allow it to track Titan’s atmosphere and weather – which has a methane cycle instead of Earth’s water cycle

Titan’s environment was first discovered by the Cassini-Huygens mission in 2005, when it discovered that Methane rained into lakes and seas.

Over the years, it has revealed chemical environments with the potential to lead to life as it did on Earth.

‘The kind of prebiotic chemistry that we’re looking at, these are things we can’t do in the lab — the timescales are too long to do these experiments in the lab — but Titan has been doing them for ages,’ Dr Turtle said.

‘The results are just sitting on the surface.

This NASA image shows Saturn's moon, Titan, in ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths. The Cassini spacecraft took the image while on its mission to gather information on Saturn, its rings, atmosphere and moons. The different colors represent various atmospheric content on Titan

This NASA image shows Saturn's moon, Titan, in ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths. The Cassini spacecraft took the image while on its mission to gather information on Saturn, its rings, atmosphere and moons. The different colors represent various atmospheric content on Titan

This NASA image shows Saturn’s moon, Titan, in ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths. The Cassini spacecraft took the image while on its mission to gather information on Saturn, its rings, atmosphere and moons. The different colors represent various atmospheric content on Titan

‘If we can get to these different places on the surface of Titan, we can pick up the results of the experiments.

THE ‘DRAGONFLY’

The eight-bladed ‘dragonfly’ drone would fly from one region of Titan to the next, recharging while landed using its own electric generator.

The lander would use use two rotors at each of its four corners to fly from one region of the moon to the next, and recharge using a multimission radioisotope thermoelectric generator (MMRTG) it would carry with it, which converts the heat from decaying radioactive plutonium-238 into electricity.  

Dragonfly could also drill and take samples, and examine the moon’s surface.

Sensors would allow it to track Titan’s atmosphere and weather – which has a methane cycle instead of Earth’s water cycle.  

Titan’s thick atmosphere and low gravity make the mean that flight on Titan is easier and require less energy.

‘They’re just waiting for us,’ she said.

To explore Mars, researchers used rovers.

Each one could travel tens of miles over their lifetime, and as of April 2017 NASA’s Opportunity Rover has travelled more than 27 miles.

But instead, Dr Turtle wants to use drones to travel in Titan’s thick atmosphere, which is four times more dense than Earth’s and would make drone flight easier.  

Another feature that makes Titan appealing to explore with drones is its low gravity environment – its gravity is only a tenth as strong as Earth’s.

This means that flight on Titan is easier and the drone could move by a few tens of kilometers in one flight.

Other Titan missions suggestions have included balloons and airships, but these always need to remain in the air which uses more power and don’t allow for exploring the ground surface. 

But the Dragonfly lander would use use two rotors at each of its four corners to fly from one region of the moon to the next, and recharge using a multimission radioisotope thermoelectric generator (MMRTG) it would carry with it, which converts the heat from decaying radioactive plutonium-238 into electricity.

A giant of a moon appears before a giant of a planet undergoing seasonal changes in this natural color view of Titan and Saturn from NASA's Cassini spacecraft. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

A giant of a moon appears before a giant of a planet undergoing seasonal changes in this natural color view of Titan and Saturn from NASA's Cassini spacecraft. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

A giant of a moon appears before a giant of a planet undergoing seasonal changes in this natural color view of Titan and Saturn from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

This could allow the Drangonfly to fly for decades potentially, especially considering Titan’s thick atmosphere would also block out radiation which could harm the drone.

If NASA chooses to fund Dragonfly, it could launch in the mid 2020a and arrive in the 2030s.

While data from Cassini could provide potential landing locations, the drone could also scout them out.

Titan's dunes are gigantic, reaching, on average, 0.6 to 1.2 miles (1 to 2 kilometers) wide, hundreds of miles (kilometers) long and around 300 feet (100 meters) high 

Titan's dunes are gigantic, reaching, on average, 0.6 to 1.2 miles (1 to 2 kilometers) wide, hundreds of miles (kilometers) long and around 300 feet (100 meters) high 

Titan’s dunes are gigantic, reaching, on average, 0.6 to 1.2 miles (1 to 2 kilometers) wide, hundreds of miles (kilometers) long and around 300 feet (100 meters) high 

After landing it could map potential sites to explore, or sit tight and wait for researchers to decide where it should go next.

But Dragonfly wouldn’t just fly from site to site, it could also drill and take samples, and examine the moon’s surface.

Sensors would allow it to track Titan’s atmosphere and weather – which has a methane cycle instead of Earth’s water cycle.

The Cassini aircraft made its 127th and final close approach to Titan on April 21, 2017. On April 26, the spacecraft made the first in a series of 22 dives through the  gap between Saturn and its rings as part of its mission's grand finale. Cassini will end its expedition on September 15, 2017, with a final plunge into the gas giant

The Cassini aircraft made its 127th and final close approach to Titan on April 21, 2017. On April 26, the spacecraft made the first in a series of 22 dives through the  gap between Saturn and its rings as part of its mission's grand finale. Cassini will end its expedition on September 15, 2017, with a final plunge into the gas giant

The Cassini aircraft made its 127th and final close approach to Titan on April 21, 2017. On April 26, the spacecraft made the first in a series of 22 dives through the gap between Saturn and its rings as part of its mission’s grand finale. Cassini will end its expedition on September 15, 2017, with a final plunge into the gas giant

The moon’s giant sand dunes could be a good potential exploration target as they may consist of a variety of materials from across Titan’s surface.

Impact craters also might be interesting exploration sites, as they may have melted ice in the crust and put liquid water in contact with organic materials.

The drone, which would cost $1 billion, would arrive during Titan’s northern hemisphere winter, so it would start in the south.

NASA's Huygens probe descended onto the mysterious world of Titan 12 years ago. Because Titan is smaller than Earth, its gravity does not hold onto its gaseous envelope as tightly, so the atmosphere extends 370 miles (595km) into space.

NASA's Huygens probe descended onto the mysterious world of Titan 12 years ago. Because Titan is smaller than Earth, its gravity does not hold onto its gaseous envelope as tightly, so the atmosphere extends 370 miles (595km) into space.

NASA’s Huygens probe descended onto the mysterious world of Titan 12 years ago. Because Titan is smaller than Earth, its gravity does not hold onto its gaseous envelope as tightly, so the atmosphere extends 370 miles (595km) into space.

The NASA New Frontiers competition, which selects a new mission every five year, has six themes, including sample-return missions from comets or the moon, an ocean worlds explorer, a probe to Saturn, exploration of the Trojan asteroids and a Venus in-situ explorer.

The deadline for this round of proposals is April 28 – and Dragonfly is one of the candidates.

NASA will narrow down suggestions in November, and make a final selection in July 2019. 

TITAN: EARTH’S ‘TOXIC TWIN’

In the case of Titan these are liquid methane rather than water on Earth.

Regular Earth-water, H2O, would be frozen solid on Titan where the surface temperature is -180°C (-292°F). 

Titan is the only place in the solar system known to have rivers, rainfall and seas - and possibly even waterfalls. Two images taken by Cassini of Titan (pictured) on April 18, 2017

Titan is the only place in the solar system known to have rivers, rainfall and seas - and possibly even waterfalls. Two images taken by Cassini of Titan (pictured) on April 18, 2017

Titan is the only place in the solar system known to have rivers, rainfall and seas – and possibly even waterfalls. Two images taken by Cassini of Titan (pictured) on April 18, 2017

With its thick atmosphere and organic-rich chemistry, Titan resembles a frozen version of Earth several billion years ago, before life began pumping oxygen into our atmosphere.

Because Titan is smaller than Earth, its gravity does not hold onto its gaseous envelope as tightly, so the atmosphere extends 370 miles (595km) into space.

With Titan’s low gravity and dense atmosphere, methane raindrops could grow twice as large as Earth’s raindrops. 

 



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