Wednesday, 21 August, 2019

NASA plans to send a drone to Saturn's largest moon

NASA plans to send a flying robot to Saturn’s moon Titan Nasa to send spacecraft to Saturn's moon Titan
Sandra Phillips | 28 June, 2019, 01:58

This illustration shows NASA's Dragonfly rotorcraft-lander approaching a site on Saturn's exotic moon, Titan.

Titan was last studied by the global Cassini-Huygens mission.

The drone is slated to launch in 2026 and arrive at Titan in 2034. The drone-like lander will be able to fly more than 100 miles through Titan's atmosphere.

That's because NASA has picked a mission to the icy moon Titan for its next major foray out into the solar system.

Dragonfly is the fourth solar system exploration mission selected under NASA's New Frontiers program, a series of missions including the New Horizons probe launched in 2006 to study Pluto and OSIRIS-REx, which launched in 2016 to study the rocky asteroid Bennu. This large, cold moon features a thick, methane-rich atmosphere, mountains of ice and the only surface seas in the solar system beside those on Earth.

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Dragonfly's instruments will search for chemical evidence of past or existing life on the moon. Like Earth, it has clouds, lakes and rivers.

"Flying on Titan is actually easier than flying on Earth ... so it's the best way to travel, and it's the best way to go long distances", Turtle said during a NASA webcast. Its remarkable to think of this rotorcraft flying miles and miles across the organic sand dunes of Saturns largest moon, exploring the processes that shape this extraordinary environment. It will spend nine years in flight, covering 840 million miles before finally making a two-hour decent to the surface of Titan. The plan is to land on some of Titan's dunes and later on a crater. "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". We will have the opportunity to observe processes similar to what happened on early Earth when life formed and potentially conditions that could harbor life today.

Dragonfly's first destination is dune fields that are terrestrially similar to dunes found in southern Africa. That's because the three ingredients necessary for life as we know it - liquid water, organic molecules and energy - mixed during the impact that created the crater.

Its surface temperature is around -179 degrees Celsius, with a surface pressure 50% higher than Earth's. The lander will eventually fly more than 108 miles (175 kilometers) - almost double the distance traveled to date by all the Mars rovers combined. Dragonfly is led by Principal Investigator Elizabeth Turtle, who is based at Johns Hopkins Universitys Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

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