So much buzz on the cosmic scene has been about methane on Mars. Earlier this week, I told you all about a larger than usual methane deposit being sniffed out by the Curiosity Rover.
Unfortunately, the methane detected has since wafted away.
But one place that not many people talk about contains methane in such abundance that it rains liquid methane. Lakes, rivers, and seas of methane flow on its surface. And the atmosphere is largely made up of…you guessed it: methane.
This place is Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.
“Titan is unlike any other place in the solar system, and Dragonfly is like no other mission,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for Science. “It’s remarkable to think of this rotorcraft flying miles and miles across the organic sand dunes of Saturn’s largest moon, exploring the processes that shape this extraordinary environment. Dragonfly will visit a world filled with a wide variety of organic compounds, which are the building blocks of life and could teach us about the origin of life itself.”
Dragonfly is part of NASA’s New Frontiers program, which includes New Horizons, Juno, and OSIRIS-Rex. This program supports missions that have been identified as top solar system exploration priorities by the planetary community.
“The New Frontiers program has transformed our understanding of the solar system, uncovering the inner structure and composition of Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere, discovering the icy secrets of Pluto’s landscape, revealing mysterious objects in the Kuiper belt, and exploring a near-Earth asteroid for the building blocks of life,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. “Now we can add Titan to the list of enigmatic worlds NASA will explore.”
Set to launch in 2026, the Dragonfly mission will arrive at Titan in 2034 where it will explore a multitude of diverse locations looking for prebiotic chemical processes that are common to both Titan and Earth.
Some of these locales include organic dunes to the floor of an impact crater where liquid water and complex organic materials may once have existed.
Its first stop is the equatorial “Shangri-La” dune fields. This area is terrestrially similar to the dunes in Namibia in southern Africa.
Dragonfly will explore this area in short flights of up to 5 miles (8 kilometers), taking samples from compelling areas along the way. It will continue to “leapfrog” along until it reaches the Selk impact crater. All these sites were chosen using data collected from the Cassini spacecraft.
During its 2.7-year mission, Dragonfly will also investigate the moon’s atmospheric and surface properties, as well as its subsurface ocean. Like Earth, Titan has a nitrogen-based atmosphere. Because it rains methane, other organics are formed in the atmosphere and fall like light snow.
This means that the moon’s weather and surface processes are similar to those that may have given rise to life our planet.
This will be the first time NASA will fly a multi-rotor vehicle on another world. Dragonfly will employ eight rotors and fly much like a large drone. Because Titan has such a dense atmosphere—four times denser than Earth’s—this will make it possible for Dragonfly to be the first vehicle able transport its entire science payload to new locations via flight.
In the end, the lander will have flown more than 108 miles (175 kilometers), doubling the distance traveled by all the Mars rovers combined.
“With the Dragonfly mission, NASA will once again do what no one else can do,” said NASA Administrator, Jim Bridenstine. “Visiting this mysterious ocean world could revolutionize what we know about life in the universe. This cutting-edge mission would have been unthinkable even just a few years ago, but we’re now ready for Dragonfly’s amazing flight.”