NASA has chosen to commit up to $850 million to creating an interplanetary probe unlike any seen before: a rotor-equipped spacecraft that will fly through the smoggy atmosphere of Titan, Saturn's biggest moon.
The Dragonfly spacecraft is able to land on the world and then hop back up like a drone - flying over the surface before dropping down on other parts of Titan that might be of interest.
It will launch in 2026, but won't reach Titan until the 2034 because Saturn is so far from us.
"The instruments on board will help us investigate organic chemistry, evaluate habitability and search for chemical signatures of past or even present life".
"We will launch Dragonfly to explore the frontiers of human knowledge for the benefit of all humanity", NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said. It will eventually fly more than 175 km and become the first vehicle ever to fly its entire science payload to new places for repeatable and targeted access to surface materials. "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". By the time its baseline mission is complete, the drone will have covered 108 miles, almost double the distance traveled by all Mars rovers combined. Those flights will occur about once every Titan day, which is about 16 Earth days. Other organics are formed in the atmosphere and fall like light snow.
Its surface temperature is around -179 degrees Celsius, with a surface pressure 50% higher than Earth's.
"Dragonfly is a bold, game-changing way to explore the solar system", said Ralph Semmel, the director of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, which was selected by NASA to lead the mission. "And then they drift down out of the atmosphere to the surface nearly like a light snow", says Curt Niebur, lead program scientist for NASA's New Frontiers Program. The program is managed by the Planetary Missions Program Office at NASAs Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agencys Planetary Science Division in Washington.
Dragonfly is the latest in a series of missions under the New Frontiers programme, following on from the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, the Juno mission to Jupiter and the OSIRIS-REx mission to the asteroid Bennu. Titan's atmosphere is four times as dense as Earth's at the surface, and its gravity is only one-seventh of Earth's, she said.
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