NASA's mission to launch Dragonfly

  • Category
    Science & Technology
  • Published
    22nd Jul, 2019

Context

NASA will launch a robotic mission to Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, in 2026.

The mission, named Dragonfly, will deliver a drone like spacecraft to the surface. The space copter, which indeed resembles its eponymous insect, will hop from one spot to another, making measurements of the ground and the atmosphere as it goes.

Dragonfly marks the first time NASA will fly a multi-rotor vehicle for science on another planet; it has eight rotors and flies like a large drone. It will take advantage of Titan’s dense atmosphere – four times denser than Earth’s – to become the first vehicle ever to fly its entire science payload to new places for repeatable and targeted access to surface materials.

Why was Titan chosen:                             

  • For a moon, Titan has quite a few things in common with Earth.
  • Titan is among one of the best candidates for extraterrestrial life in the solar system.
  • It has an atmosphere and weather. Liquid rains down from thick clouds, filling basins and canyons, then evaporates back into the sky, where the process starts over.
  • On Earth, this loop involves water. On Titan, it involves methane. Temperatures on the moon are so extreme that the gas flows as a liquid there, producing bodies of liquid as big as the Great Lakes of North America.

Previous mission:

NASA’s first observations of Titan date back to the Voyager missions that toured the outer planets and moons in the 1970s and ’80s. The spacecraft’s cameras couldn’t penetrate Titan’s atmosphere, the thickest in the solar system.

A European spacecraft arrived on Titan in 2005. From beneath the haze, the Huygens probe captured photographs and beamed them back to Earth.

There were picture of gullies. On Earth, flowing water carves gullies into rocky landscapes. On Titan, methane was considered responsible.

Huygens was dropped off by Cassini, a NASA spacecraft that remained in orbit around Saturn until 2017, occasionally swinging by the moon to collect data and pictures.

What are the prospects over Titan?

  • Dragonfly will search for signs of life, ancient and present. In Titan’s atmosphere, spacecraft have detected carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, ethane, and other elements on which life on Earth depends.
  • They’ve even found a compound that could interact with the methane and ethane to create cell-like membranes. Scientists suspect that Titan might even have water—real, actual H2O—lurking beneath its surface.
  • In just a few flights, Dragonfly will be able to go farther than the Opportunity rover on Mars has in the last 12 years.

What will the Dragonfly mission do?

During its 2.7-year baseline mission, Dragonfly will explore diverse environments from organic dunes to the floor of an impact crater where liquid water and complex organic materials key to life once existed together for possibly tens of thousands of years.

Its instruments will study how far prebiotic chemistry may have progressed. They also will investigate the moon’s atmospheric and surface properties and its subsurface ocean and liquid reservoirs.

Additionally, instruments will search for chemical evidence of past or extant life.

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