Among the more than 150 known moons scattered throughout our solar system, Titan, the largest of Saturn’s 62 moons, is the only one with a considerable atmosphere. It is also the only celestial body (aside from Earth) to have liquids—lakes, rivers, and seas—on its surface, although many of these bodies are made up of liquid hydrocarbons such as methane and ethane as opposed to water. With an atmosphere made up mostly of nitrogen, similar to Earth’s atmosphere, Titan displays the qualities that present the very real possibility of sustaining life in some manner. It is with all of this in mind that NASA has selected Titan to be the latest destination in its New Frontiers program, which has previously included the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, the Juno mission to Jupiter, and the OSIRIS-REx mission to the near-Earth asteroid Bennu.
Dragonfly, an octocopter rotorcraft lander similar in size to the Mars rover, will fly to several promising locations along Titan’s surface. Drawing from data previously gathered throughout the Cassini mission to choose a calm weather period and navigate the ideal spot on which to land, the craft will begin its journey in 2026 and arrive at its destination by 2034. Upon its arrival, Dragonfly will be the first craft to visit the moon in nearly 30 years—it was last visited on Christmas in 2004 by Huygens, a probe sent by Cassini, giving us our first inclinations that the moon had a similar makeup to a primeval Earth. Ultimately, Dragonfly will be investigating the icy moon for any evidence of life—past or present—or the potential for life, while gathering information on its prebiotic organic chemistry and, as it is considered an analog of an ancient Earth, searching for clues to the origins of existence on our own planet.
According to a press release from NASA, Dragonfly will first land “at the equatorial ‘Shangri-La’ dune fields, which are terrestrially similar to the linear dunes in Namibia in southern Africa and offer a diverse sampling location.” From there, it will explore the region, taking short flights that will eventually build up to longer “leapfrog” flights of roughly 5 miles (8 kilometers), all while gathering samples along the way. In the end, “it will finally reach the Selk impact crater, where there is evidence of past liquid water, organics—the complex molecules that contain carbon, combined with hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen—and energy, which together make up the recipe for life.” All in all, the lander will cover more than 108 miles (175 kilometers) of Titan’s surface and will stream video during flight, giving all of us back on Earth a glimpse of the moon’s terrain.
“Titan is unlike any other place in the solar system, and Dragonfly is like no other mission,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, DC, explained in the press release. “It’s remarkable to think of this rotorcraft flying miles and miles across the organic sand dunes of Saturn’s largest moon, exploring the processes that shape this extraordinary environment. 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.”
Dragonfly will be developed and led from the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in Laurel, Maryland, and headed up by principal investigator Dr. Elizabeth Turtle. In an interview with the New York Times, Turtle explained, “We have all these ingredients necessary for life as we know it, and they’re just sitting there doing chemistry experiments on the surface of Titan. That’s why we want to send a lander there.” In Titan, we have a whole new world to explore, both inordinately unique from our own yet at the same time strikingly similar. What wonders and curiosities await us there?