Launch Date: No Earlier Than 2027
Program: New Frontiers
PI: Dr. Zibi Turtle, APL
Dragonfly is a rotorcraft mission to Titan, the largest moon of Saturn (and second largest in the Solar System). The thick atmosphere on Titan enables us to employ existing technology in a groundbreaking way, in order to explore wide-ranging locations in this unique environment. Our goals are to investigate the habitability of Titan, how far prebiotic chemistry may have proceeded, and the detection of chemical signatures that could indicate signs of life. We'll be headed to Selk Crater to answer these questions.
Image Credit: NASA /JHU APL
DraMS: Mass Spectrometer (GSFC, CNES), that will be sampling the complex chemical inventory of Titan, especially focusing on biologically relevant compounds. With this instrument, we can do both broad surveys, specific molecular detection, and look at the chirality of molecules.
DraCO: Drill for Acquisition of Complex Organics (Honeybee Robotics). DraCO will be able to tell us a lot about the surface properties of Titan, and feeds sample to DraMS.
DraGMET: Geophysics and Meteorology Package (APL, JAXA). A suite of 15 instruments, including a seismometer, designed to tell us about the surface and subsurface conditions on Titan.
DragonCAM: Camera suite, including LiDAR, which will help with positioning while we're in the air, taking images of future sampling sites, and also imaging samples as we collect them.
DraGNS: Our Gamma-ray Neutron Spectrometer (APL, LLNL, GSFC, Schumberger PNG), which will give us an idea of the chemistry of Titan.
Titan, quite simply, is unique. Next to the Earth, it is the only other body in the solar system to have rivers, lakes and seas - only these aren't formed by water, they're liquid methane. The bedrock of Titan is formed by water-ice, not rock, which overlies a global salty ocean, though we don't yet know how deep that ocean is.
Titan has a very thick atmosphere, the hosts extremely complex organic chemistry, with molecules that increase in size as you descend through the atmosphere, eventually getting so heavy that they "rain" down onto the surface of the moon, at a balmy 94K (-179C, -290F). These aerosols compact overtime to form "sand" grains in such extensive amounts that there are dune fields of this organic sand covering the equatorial region of the moon.
Cassini flyby of Titan. Credit: NASA
Titan, though cold, has many of the key ingredients necessary for the origins of life (as we know it). It has energy in the form of sunlight, which drives important photochemical reactions in the atmosphere to form abundant, complex organics. It has water in the form of ice (that would have been available in Titan's past), as well as a liquid water ocean, and, it has an active methane cycle, that could support the development of alternative biological systems.
We're hoping to answer some fundamental questions at Titan:
What makes a planet or a moon habitable?
What processes led to the origins of life?
Has life developed elsewhere in our solar system?
Titan was first discovered in 1665 by the Dutch astronomer, Christiaan Huygens (for which the Huygens probe was named).
Titan was officially named in 1847 by John Herschel, but is designated as Saturn VI by the IAU.
A Titan day is 15 Earth days and 22 Earth hours long.
Titan's surface pressure is 1.5x that of the Earth's, and has an atmospheric density 4x higher.
Titan does not have a magnetic field, but spends 95% of its orbit inside Saturn's magnetosphere.
The highest mountain on Titan is Doom Mons, 1.45 km
Cassini RADAR Image, Titan's northern land. Credit: NASA/JPL
Participate in Dragonfly
Graduate Student? Check out our Guest Investigator Program to find out how you can participate on Dragonfly.
The 2023 Application cycle is now closed. Check in here as more opportunities are announced.
References and Suggested Reading