On June 27, 2019, NASA announced its next destination into deep space where no man’s gone before: Titan, Saturn’s largest moon and the solar system’s second largest satellite behind Ganymede (Jupiter). A unique icy world, Titan presents NASA a significant challenge with the potential to reap some astounding scientific discoveries. The moon’s atmosphere measures four times that of Earth’s, and houses a diverse environment complete with organic dunes, impact craters containing liquid water and organic material, and a subsurface ocean.
Larger than the planet Mercury, there’s nothing quite like Titan in our solar system. Its nitrogen based atmosphere resembles Earth’s, but unlike our home, Titan’s methane based clouds rain chemicals like a light snow. The surface pressure on Titan is 50% higher than Earth, with a temperature clocking in around -290 F (-179 C). The moon orbits Saturn some 866 million miles (1.4 billion km) from the Sun, ten times the distance of the Sun to the Earth.
Dragonfly will attempt to determine if life once existed on the moon, and compare its similar characteristics to Earth in order to achieve a greater understanding of how life formed here. While measuring Titan’s atmosphere and surface properties, Dragonfly will analyze how prebiotic chemistry progressed in its lifecycle, and what implications those results garner for the moon itself, Earth and the solar system as a whole. NASA schedules the launch date for sometime in 2026 with a 2034 arrival (space is big, man), setting the initial mission duration to a 2.7 year baseline, leaving the possibility of extensions and additional operations. Upon arrival to Saturn’s moon, Dragonfly will search for prebiotic chemical processes while examining areas of note and extracting samples to return to Earth. A successfully completed mission would allow for repeatable efforts, accelerating humanity further into deep space while advancing our civilization into one with a colonized solar system on the horizon, a fascinating notion. It’s the age of discovery, replacing wooden boats with space ships and asteroid mining colonies, and all that could possibly manifest as a result.
Dragonfly builds off of data from the Cassini mission, a trove of near 13 years’ worth of data, which has allowed researchers to determine the ideal weather conditions and time to safely land on Titan. Researchers have identified several regions of the moon as “scientifically interesting targets,” in particular the “Shangri-La” dune fields, similar to the linear dunes found in Namibia, Africa. Dragonfly will leap-frog across the region, exploring this mysterious world at an interval of five miles a trip, stopping to capture samples in areas characterized as geographically diverse. In the region of the Selk Crater for example, past research indicates evidence of once liquid water and complex organic molecules containing carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, all the proper ingredients necessary for the development of life. Dragonfly aims to fly near 108 miles (175 km), double that of all the Mars rovers combined to date. Its mission represents the culmination of human progress and technological advancement. Our civilization continues to move forward, further unlocking the mysteries of our solar system and the Cosmos.
Dragonfly is the result of the selection of the New Frontiers Program, a sibling mission to New Horizons, Juno , and OSIRIS Rex. The New Frontiers mission is our deep space program, managed by the Planetary Missions Program office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, designed to challenge our reality and pave humanity’s path into the stars. Aside from exploring the mysterious regions beyond Neptune and analyzing some of the farthest objects ever discovered on the fringes our solar system, the New Frontiers mission now turns its attention inward, to some of our solar neighborhood’s most intriguing regions.