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NASA Reviewing Plans to Land a Drone on the Surface of Saturn’s Moon, Titan

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Saturn’s moon, Titan, is a strange world that scientists believe could be one of the best candidates for finding extraterrestrial life. Now, NASA may be planning to better explore it using drone technology. The proposed mission, Dragonfly, would combine cutting-edge terrestrial drone technology with precise instruments honed by the Mars Mission to help explore and traverse Titan’s surface.

Melissa Trainer, a deputy principal investigator with the mission told Space.com, “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.” Later this year, NASA will have to decide between this mission and another proposed mission that would have a probe land on a comet to collect and study its composition.

Earth-Titan-Moon Comparison by Kelvin Case via CC 3.0

However, if the Titan mission is given a go, Dragonfly would aim to launch sometime in 2025 and would arrive at the moon sometime in 2034. Titan is said to be very similar to Earth in that sunlight hitting its surface triggers the same chemical reaction in its atmosphere as what happens on our planet. These reactions create large organic molecules that pour down Titan’s surface, similar to rainwater on Earth. The surface of Titan is covered in water ice, with other areas comprised of yet to be identified organic compounds.

The current data we have on Titan is all thanks to the Cassini mission and the Huygens probe that traveled with it to study the moons of Saturn. However, Cassini never got a good view of the planet’s surface due to its thick atmosphere. Once the Huygens probe ran out of battery several hours after landing on the moon’s surface.

When compared to landing a rover on the surface of Mars, landing on Titan would be nowhere near as technically difficult. Trainer says, “Compared to that, landing on Titan is just this leisurely, gentle float down to the surface. It takes something like over 2 hours because of this dense atmosphere.” This, compounded with the fact that the Dragonfly will have a drone with a rotor-copter design means the aircraft will be able to easily get around, with the potential of exploring dozens of sites driven by an on-board nuclear power source.

The team behind Dragonfly has submitted a detailed report to NASA as to why this should be the next major mission of the agency. The team members hope to receive word on the decision to pursue this mission by sometime this summer.

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