NASA Dragonfly mission to study Titan for origins, signs of life

NASA Dragonfly mission to study Titan for origins, signs of life
Dragonfly Mission

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - NASA has announced funding for the Dragonfly mission, featuring a drone-like rotorcraft lander that would explore the prebiotic chemistry and habitability of dozens of sites on Saturn’s moon Titan.

The Dragonfly mission, part of NASA’s New Frontiers program, will sample materials and determine surface composition to investigate Titan's organic chemistry and habitability, monitor atmospheric and surface conditions, image landforms to investigate geological processes, and perform seismic studies.

Planetary Science Institute Senior Scientists R. Aileen Yingst and Catherine Neish will be Co-Investigators on the Dragonfly mission.

Neish will study Titan’s geology, with a particular focus on impact cratering, volcanism, and aqueous surface chemistry. Yingst will research what geologic processes have been – and currently are – active on Titan.

Unlike other worlds we've landed on, Titan really has an otherworldly feel,” Yingst said. “For a geologist, being able to study and remotely move around on the surface of a planet where water ice is as hard as rock, and liquid water would be considered a lava, is tremendously challenging and exciting.”

My Ph.D. dissertation investigated the creation of biological molecules on Titan’s surface. Titan is a natural laboratory for the study of prebiotic molecules,” Neish said. “I am thrilled to have the opportunity to ‘collect the results’ of these natural experiments as a part of the Dragonfly team.”

Elizabeth Turtle, lead investigator on Dragonfly, worked at PSI from 2002-2006 and is now at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, which manages the mission for NASA.

The mission is slated to launch in 2026 and reach Titan in 2034.

Dragonfly is a drone the size of a rover used to investigate Mars. Rotors allow it to move about the surface of Titan.

Titan features water ice, methane, carbon-based molecules and energy needed for life. Dragonfly will investigate organic chemistry, habitability and the presence of past or current life.

PSI Senior Scientist Amanda Hendrix, whose book “Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets” looks at the challenges of spaceflight and Titan as a human destination, said, “I am very excited about the Dragonfly concept. Titan is such a fascinating and Earth-like world, with its thick atmosphere, weather and surface liquids. I like that Dragonfly takes advantage of the Titan environment, namely the low gravity and thick atmosphere, to explore multiple sites across the diverse world. The Huygens probe gave us a first tantalizing glimpse of the surface of Titan, and I’m eager to see more.”

New Frontiers is NASA’s largest program of competitively selected planetary science missions. The program calls for a mission cost limit of $850 million for development, excluding launch and operation cost.

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