Dutch astronomer Christopher Huygens discovered Saturn’s largest moon Titan in 1655. Not quite 300 years later, Dutch American astronomer Gerard Kuiper (yes, of Kuiper Belt fame) discovered it possessed an atmosphere. Kuiper passed light from the distant moon through a prism and identified the presence of methane gas.
Further observations from Earth and during Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft flybys revealed a mostly nitrogen (98.4 percent) atmosphere laced with methane and other organic molecules that create a thick orange smog obscuring the surface. Repeated observation by NASA’s orbiting Cassini probe and the Huygens lander found lakes, rivers and clouds made of bitterly cold, liquid hydrocarbons similar to the propane some of use to heat our homes.
Be there for the arrival and powering-up of the Dragonfly, slated for launch in 2026 and landing on Titan in 2034, in this simulation.
Given its thick atmosphere, it seemed a perfect place to explore by drone. And that’s exactly what NASA hopes to do with the recently-announced Dragonfly lander mission. The drone-like rotorcraft would launch in 2026 and arrive at Titan in 2034. After touch down in the dune fields in the moon’s equatorial regions, a drone about the size of the current Mars rover and fitted with 8 rotors would fly from place to place like a dragonfly on the move.
Titan’s surface atmospheric pressure is 1.5 times that of Earth, and its gravitational pull just 14 percent as strong, making it ideal for powered flight. It’s estimated the drone-copter could travel 10 of miles in under an hour. During the planned 2-year mission it would cover several hundred kilometers, more than any other vehicle ever sent to another world.
Where would it get its power, you ask? And how would it stay warm on a world where the surface temperature is –290° F (–179° C)? A hazy atmosphere coupled with Titan’s great distance from the sun of nearly a billion miles makes solar impossible. Instead, like the Mars Curiosity rover, it will use the heat generated by the decay of radioactive plutonium-238 and convert it to electricity inside the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG). Dragonfly will fly, study and transmit data during daylight hours on Titan, where a complete day-night cycle takes 16 Earth days before settling down to recharge for the 192-hour-long night.
Think of all the diverse locations that can be studied this way. Scientists hope to learn how far Titan’s organic chemical-making has progressed and to search for signs of water-based or hydrocarbon-based life. The distant moon’s chemistry and atmosphere are similar to what we think existed on Earth before life arose. We may gain insight on how organic chemicals — those containing carbon — combined in the presence of other materials to spark the existence of the first living thing.
Besides analyzing chemistry, the flying lab will measure surface composition, study Titan’s weather, photograph surface features, perform seismic studies and shoot aerial images of geological features. All noble uses for a drone.