Dragonfly is the planned spacecraft and mission that will send a mobile robotic drone to Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, in order to study prebiotic chemistry and extraterrestrial habitability at various locations where it will perform vertical-takeoffs and landings (VTOL) in 2026. Titan is unique in having an abundant, complex, and diverse carbon-rich chemistry on the surface of a water-ice-dominated world with an interior water ocean, making it a high-priority target for astrobiology and origin of life studies. The project was proposed in April 2017 to NASA‘s New Frontiers programme by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory following the success of both the Cassini and Huygen missions.
On June 27, 2019, Dragonfly was selected to become the fourth mission in the New Frontiers programme and a month later exact specifications for the craft were explained by Brian McManus on his YouTube channel Real Engineering.
He said: “As our quest to learn more about the origins of life continues, NASA’s new mission called Dragonfly will begin its journey to Titan in 2026 and the work of Cassini and Huygen mission will be vital to its success.
“Dragonfly is a mobile landed fitted with eight large rotors that will help it to fly around the surface like a drone, an incredibly difficult engineering challenge, and the data gained from Huygens will be insanely valuable when designing the drone.
“Everything from its sensor layout, battery capacity, energy source and propellers design will be dictated by what we learned.”
NASA’s planned mission for the future
Titan is the largest Moon of Jupiter
We can look forward to incredible photos of Titan’s surface,
Mr McManus revealed how the scientists at NASA have taken inspiration from previous missions.
He added: “Dragonfly will have many of the same scientific instruments as the Curiosity Rover, it will have a skid mounted drill to take soil samples and run it through a mass spectrometer to learn more about the soil composition.
“It will be capable of quickly analysing elemental compositions at landing sites before landing using a neutron-activated gamma-ray spectrometer.
“This instrument typically needs cryocooling, but thanks to Titan’s subzero temperatures it can be passively cooled.
“It will, however, need to generate its own neutrons rather than relying on cosmic rays to generate them as the atmosphere blocks too much sunlight.’
NASA’s Dragonfly mission
Mr McManus detailed some of the problems scientists need to overcome.
He continued: “When it lands, a seismometer will give us information about quakes and reveal the thickness and nature of Titan’s icy crust sitting above what is thought to be liquid water ocean.
“We can also look forward to incredible photos of Titan’s surface, just like the photos from Mars, but since the air is thicker on Titan and the gravity is one sevenths of Earth’s, Dragonfly will be able to achieve more thrust on a planet that needs less lift.
“Due to Titan’s distance from the Sun and its thick atmosphere, the sunlight on Titan’s surface is around 100 times weaker than it is on Earth, making solar panels impractical.
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The probe will be able to fly around the moon
NASA is hoping to land in 2026
“Thankfully, we have a lot of practice in a different type of energy source through missions like the Curiosity Rover, which was powered by Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator.”
Mr McManus finalised by explaining how the probe will use Titan’s long nights to recharge its batteries.
He finalised: “This worked by converting the heat from the natural decay of a radioisotope into electricity, using a simple process known as the Seebeck effect.
“The thermal electric generator used for the Curiosity Rover could generate 110 Watts of electrical power, but we will lose some pf that power generation capability during Dragonfly’s eight year journey.
“Dragonfly’s cruise vehicle will need to be equipped with radiators to bleed that heat energy into space to prevent overheating, just as the Curiosity did.
“We will also lose energy by keeping the craft at operating temperature, as the surface of Titan can reach temperatures as low as -190C and to keep some vital systems running, leaving about 75 Watts to charge while on the ground.
“All of our activities will occur during Titan’s daylight hours, so we will be aiming to charge our batteries during Titan’s nights, which last 192 hours, the same as their days.”