For its next mission in our solar system, NASA plans to fly a drone helicopter to Saturn’s largest moon Titan in search of the building blocks of life, the space agency stated on Thursday.
The Dragonfly mission, which will launch in 2026 and land in 2034, will send a rotorcraft to fly to dozens of places across the icy moon, which has a solid atmosphere and is viewed by scientists as an equivalent of very early-era Earth.
It is the only heavenly body besides our planet known to have liquid rivers, lakes, and seas on its surface, though these contain hydrocarbons like methane and ethane, not water.
“Visiting this mysterious ocean world could change what we know about life in the universe, ” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine.
“This cutting-edge mission would have been unimaginable even just a few years ago, but we’re now ready for Dragonfly’s amazing flight.”
NASA stated the vehicle would have eight rotors and fly like a large drone.
“During its 2.7-year baseline mission, Dragonfly will explore diverse environments from organic dunes to the floor of an impact crater where liquid water and complex organic materials key to life once existed together for possibly tens of thousands of years,” NASA said in a statement.
“Its instruments will study how far prebiotic chemistry may have progressed. They also will investigate the moon’s atmospheric and surface properties and its subsurface ocean and liquid tanks.
“Also, instruments will search for chemical proof of past or extant life.”
The craft will land first at the equatorial Shangri-La dune, exploring the region in short trips before building up to longer leapfrog flights of 8km.
It will stop along compelling areas to collect samples before finally reaching the moon’s Selk impact crater, where there is evidence of past liquid water, organic materials, and energy: a potential primordial stew.
The hope is the donor which will ultimately fly more than 175km.
Titan’s atmosphere is made mostly of nitrogen, like Earth’s, but is four times denser. Its clouds and rains are methane.