Independent US civilian space program, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (or NASA) has shared outline of a Saturn-bound drone mission to launch by 2026.
The compact car-sized drone, dubbed ‘Dragonfly,’ will explore a moon of Saturn called Titan. The vehicle is completely autonomous–and nuclear-powered. It functions on the same drone technology purchasable on the public market today and will be programmed to hover above the surface of the moon for at least two Earth years.
“Almost everyone who gets exposed to Dragonfly has a similar thought process. The first time you see it, you think: ‘You gotta be kidding, that’s crazy,’ But, eventually, you come to realize that this is a highly executable mission.” — Doug Adams, the mission’s spacecraft systems engineer.
- Launches from Earth in 2026
- Arrives to Titan by 2034
- Transporting capsule enters Titan atmosphere
- Dragonfly drops from rear of capsule, flies down to surface
- Begins series of “hops” sampling ground conditions and sending back data including photos
- Drone navigates by continuously photographing the landscape, creating its own “map” in real time.
Mission scientists say the self-guided Dragonfly is technically a quadcopter, an item found easily these days on Amazon.
Naturally, when it comes to a Titan mission, there is no GPS. However, one helpful aspect is atmosphere. Mainly nitrogen, Titan’s atmosphere is denser than Earth’s and its gravity is far lower which makes for very friendly flight conditions–i.e. easier to fly there than on Earth.
The mission team plans to use the same guidance system running NASA’s Martian rover, Curiosity to explore this new frontier.
“Titan is really unique place in the solar system where all of these different processes are coming together in a very Earth-like way.” — Shannon Mackenzie, mission postdoc
The largest of Saturn’s moons, Titan has dunes, mountains and gullies–even rivers and lakes. That said, Titan also is so cold those bodies of water are filled with liquid methane, not water. In addition, Scientists report the surface to be covered by organic molecules.
Current thinking is that Titan climate is too harsh for those molecules to be alive, but NASA hopes the environment could provide clues to how life began on Earth.