NASA's Dragonfly spacecraft will have a whole list of significant science goals.
Planetary scientists have identified a list of scientific targets for an extraterrestrial drone that will travel to Saturn’s moon Titan in 2026. It is expected that the Dragonfly mission will determine whether Titan is seismically active. The spacecraft will also study in detail the composition and properties of its atmosphere and surface layer, and it will also measure the satellite’s habitability potential.
Everything you need to know about NASA’s Dragonfly mission to Titan
Titan is a unique body in the solar system, this largest satellite of Saturn stands out for having a dense opaque atmosphere, and the atmospheric pressure near the satellite’s surface is 1.5 times higher than on Earth.
Liquid lakes and seas
In addition, this is the only celestial body in the solar system besides our planet that has liquid lakes and seas – however, on Titan, they are made from a mixture of methane and ethane, in which nitrogen is dissolved. Organic compounds cover most of Titan’s surface, and an ocean may lie beneath its surface, which is capable of generating cryovolcanism.
All this makes Titan interesting not only for geologists but also for astrobiologists. However, Titans surface was studied only by the Huygens probe, which worked on it for just over an hour. All other studies of Titan were carried out during the rendezvous of interplanetary stations, such as Voyagers or Cassini.
The Dragonfly Mission
In 2019, NASA announced that it will launch the Dragonfly mission to Titan in 2026, which will land on a satellite in 2034. This will be the second-ever extraterrestrial drone, its eight rotors will be powered by a thermoelectric generator. The device will be equipped with two mass spectrometers, several cameras, and a block of meteorological and geophysical sensors.
Dragonfly will have to study the composition of Titan’s surface layer in at least three different landscapes: dunes, the vicinity of impact craters, and areas near river beds. The octocopter will search for both organic and inorganic prebiotically relevant molecules, including amino acids, nitrogenous bases, lipids, and sugars, and determine their concentration in the soil and other properties, including chirality.
Content of water in the soil
In addition, the drone will determine the content of water ice in the soil, identify sources and sinks of methane, and determine their role in Titan’s methane hydrological cycle. All of these studies will further play an important role in assessing the habitability potential of Titan.
Another target for the octocopter will be the atmosphere – the device will monitor temperature, pressure, hydrogen and methane content in the atmosphere, and wind speed and direction.
Chemical composition of Titan’s atmosphere
It will also determine its chemical composition, in particular the content of neon and argon, which will allow imposing restrictions on the evolutionary models of Titan’s atmosphere. Over the course of the Dragonfly mission, the spacecraft must also understand the mechanisms behind the deposition of various substances from the atmosphere on the satellite’s surface.
Mapping the surface
The drone will also map the surface of Titan and receive detailed color images of it, while photographs of soil sampling sites should show grains less than 120 micrometers in size.
At the same time, the octocopter will try to understand if Titan is seismically active by monitoring ground vibrations.
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• Barnes, J. W., Turtle, E. P., Trainer, M. G., & Lorenz, R. D. (2021, July 19). Science Goals and Objectives for the Dragonfly Titan Rotorcraft Relocatable Lander. The Planetary Science Journal.
• Hopkins, J., & Glaser |, L. B. (2021, August 10). Dragonfly mission to Titan announces big science goals. Cornell Chronicle.
• O’Neill, M. (2021, August 12). NASA’s Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s Moon Titan Announces big science goals. SciTechDaily.
• Tomaswick, A. (2021, August 13). Dragonfly mission has some ambitious science goals to accomplish when it arrives at titan. Universe Today.