NASA is going to explore the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan with a drone. The American space agency hopes to be able to study the atmosphere better there by flying around the surface in addition to landing.
The mission consists of a lander who gets the name Dragonfly. It lands around the equator of the moon of Saturn, and has to study the complex atmosphere there for a few years. Although it is a lander, Dragonfly uses a helicopter-like mechanism to fly a total of 180 kilometers of the total monthly diameter of 5,149 kilometers during different flights. The Dragonfly has a thermoelectric generator on board that charges a battery with the help of a plutonium-238 radio isotope. This option is chosen because Titan does not have enough solar power to charge the vehicle with solar cells.
Titan has an atmosphere that is 1.5 times as heavy as the earth, but gravity is only fourteen percent that of our planet. That is why, according to NASA, flying around with rotors is a perfect way to move around the celestial body. On board Dragonfly are instruments that according to NASA are “very similar to those of the Curiosity rover” currently on Mars. The probe will also take seismic measurements.
NASA announced the mission on Thursday evening. For a long time it was unclear exactly which mission the space agency would announce. Indeed, there was also the option to fly to the comet 67P / Churyumov-Geramisenko and even bring a soil sample back to earth. In the end, NASA opted for the Titan mission, which, although more difficult, can also deliver more. “A big country does big things,” said NASA boss Jim Bridenstine during the announcement. Part of the decision was based on the findings of the Huygens probe. He was aboard the Cassini probe, and descended in 2004 for a landing on Titan. The probe only survived 90 minutes there, but that yielded a huge amount of data about the moon. For example, it became known that liquid substances can be found on the surface,
Dragonfly falls under the New Frontiers program of NASA, a series of space missions that are intended to conduct research deep within the solar system. Dragonfly becomes the fourth mission within New Frontiers, alongside the New Horizons Pluto mission, the Juno probe flying at Jupiter, and OSIRIS-REx with the asteroid Bennu.
It will be years before the Dragonfly arrives at Titan. The journey to the moon takes a very long time. The mission is expected to go up in 2026 on a rocket that has not yet been selected, and will only land on the moon in 2034. That is just as long as previous missions, such as the Saturn probe Cassini, which took almost seven years to travel the 1.2 billion kilometers. Cassini used a gravity pendulum from Jupiter for this. It will also take a long time before it is known whether the landing has been successful. Communication between the earth and Titan takes more than 75 minutes.