Dragonfly To Explore Titan’s Ocean World

Dragonfly mission concept of entry, descent, landing, surface operations, and flight at Titan. Image credit: Johns Hopkins APL

June 28, 2019 – NASA has announced the next destination in the New Frontiers program will be the richly organic ocean world of Titan. The Dragonfly mission will fly to multiple locations on Saturn’s moon to investigate its organic chemistry and habitability, monitor atmospheric and surface conditions, image landforms to investigate geological processes, and perform seismic studies.

Titan is a high priority for planetary exploration. The largest moon of Saturn is an analog to very early Earth, and can provide clues to how life may have started on our planet. 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.

“Titan is unlike any other place in the solar system, and Dragonfly is like no other mission,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for Science at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “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 variety of organic compounds, which are the building blocks of life and could teach us about the origin of life itself.”

Dragonfly marks the first time NASA will fly a multi-rotor vehicle for science on another planet. The dual-quadcopter flies like a large drone and can move its entire science payload to new places for repeatable and targeted access to surface materials. Dragonfly will be able to cover large distances and multiple locations by taking advantage of Titan’s dense atmosphere – four times denser than Earth’s.

“With the Dragonfly mission, NASA will once again do what no one else can do,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “Visiting this mysterious ocean world could revolutionize what we know about life in the universe. This cutting-edge mission would have been unthinkable even just a few years ago, but we’re now ready for Dragonfly’s amazing flight.”

Titan’s atmosphere is composed primarily of nitrogen (about 95%), with some methane (about 5%) and small amounts of other carbon-rich compounds. When exposed to sunlight, the methane and nitrogen molecules are split apart by ultraviolet light and recombine to form a variety of complex organic compounds. This process makes Titan unique – the only moon in the solar system with a dense atmosphere, weather, clouds, rain and liquid lakes and seas. Although the liquids are ethane and methane, the conditions are similar to those that may have sparked life on Earth.

Dragonfly will take advantage of 13 years’ worth of Cassini data to choose a calm weather period to land, a safe initial landing site and scientifically interesting targets. The spacecraft 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. Dragonfly will explore this region in short flights, building up to a series of longer “leapfrog” flights of up to 5 miles (8 kilometers), stopping along the way to take samples from compelling areas with diverse geography. Dragonfly will eventually 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 can make up the recipe for life. In total, the lander is slated to fly more than 108 miles (175 kilometers) – nearly double the distance traveled to date by all of the Mars rovers combined.

Titan is larger than the planet Mercury and is the second largest moon in our solar system. As it orbits Saturn, it is about 886 million miles (1.4 billion kilometers) away from the Sun, about 10 times farther than Earth. Because it is so far from the Sun, its surface temperature is around -290 degrees Fahrenheit (-179 degrees Celsius). Its surface pressure is also 50 percent higher than Earth’s. The atmosphere is dense and hazy, so Dragonfly will depend on a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG), like the Curiosity rover on Mars, to power its systems.

Dragonfly was selected as part of NASA’s New Frontiers program, which includes the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, Juno to Jupiter, and OSIRIS-Rex to the asteroid Bennu. New Frontiers supports missions that have been identified as top solar system exploration priorities by the planetary community. The program is managed by the Planetary Missions Program Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency’s Planetary Science Division in Washington.

“The New Frontiers program has transformed our understanding of the solar system, uncovering the inner structure and composition of Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere, discovering the icy secrets of Pluto’s landscape, revealing mysterious objects in the Kuiper belt, and exploring a near-Earth asteroid for the building blocks of life,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. “Now we can add Titan to the list of enigmatic worlds NASA will explore.”

Dragonfly is led by Principal Investigator Elizabeth Turtle, who is based at John Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. Led by APL, the Dragonfly team includes key partners at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Lockheed Martin Space Systems, NASA Ames Research Center, NASA Langley Research Center, Penn State University, Malin Space Science Systems, Honeybee Robotics, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

Dragonfly will launch in 2026 and reach its initial destination in 2034.