Nasa to send spacecraft to Saturn's moon Titan

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The space agency announced today (June 27) that the next mission in its New Frontiers line of medium-cost missions will be Dragonfly, a rotorcraft created to ply the skies of the huge, hazy and potentially life-hosting Saturn moon.

This won't be the first landing on Titan: That happened back in 2005, when the Cassini spacecraft dropped off the Huygens lander to send back the first pictures from the moon's cloud-obscured surface.

It will launch in 2026, but won't reach Titan until the 2034 because Saturn is so far from us.

The space agency said Thursday the Dragonfly mission will fly over Titan, exploring different locations on the icy moon to study whether it can support microbial life.

Titan is the only moon in our solar system that has a thick atmosphere comparable to Earth's early atmosphere.

The mission - called Dragonfly - received a coveted funding slot from NASA's New Frontiers program, which funds ambitious missions to explore objects in our Solar System. They want to explore sand dunes on Titan to determine if they're made of the same organic discovered in the atmosphere.

"Titan has the key ingredients for life", said Lori Glaze, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division.

Dragonfly could conceivably find evidence of Titan life, if the moon is indeed inhabited. Those flights will occur about once every Titan day, which is about 16 Earth days. The plan is to land on some of Titan's dunes and later on a crater. The probe will then spend at least 2.5 years cruising around the 3,200-mile-wide (5,150 kilometers) moon, making two dozen flights that cover a total of about 110 miles (180 km).

According to Nasa, Titan's weather and surface processes have complex organics, energy and water similar to those that may have kick-started life on Earth.

[Dragonfly] 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. It's the second largest moon in the solar system. "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.

Its surface temperature is around -179 degrees Celsius, with a surface pressure 50% higher than Earth's.

The lander will eventually fly more than 108 miles, almost double the distance travelled to date by all the Mars rovers combined. Dragonfly is led by Principal Investigator Elizabeth Turtle, who is based at Johns Hopkins Universitys Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

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