Researchers from Pennsylvania State University are developing a drone for NASA to investigate Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.
The Dragonfly is a radioisotope-powered, dual-quadcopter which will explore habitable sites on Titan where life could be developed.
According to the press release, Dragonfly will visit multiple sites by landing on safe terrain, and then eventually navigating to more challenging landscapes. At each site, Dragonfly will sample the surface and the atmosphere with science instruments that will later be used to analyze the habitability of the moon’s environment and how far prebiotic chemistry has progressed. It will also search for chemical signatures indicative of water or other hydrocarbon-based life.
“This is the kind of experiment we can’t do in the laboratory because of the time scales involved. Mixing of rich, organic molecules and liquid water on the surface of Titan could have persisted over very long time scales. Dragonfly is designed to study the results of Titan’s experiments in prebiotic chemistry.” said Elizabeth Turtle, principal investigator for the mission.
Dragonfly will use mass spectrometry to identify the composition of the surface and the atmosphere, gamma ray-spectrometry to measure the composition of the subsurface, geophysics and meteorology sensors to measure wind, pressure, and the temperature, and it will also utilize its camera to find potential landing sites.
“We could take a lander, put it on Titan, take these four measurements at one place, and significantly increase our understanding of Titan and similar moons,” said Peter Bedini of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. “However, we can multiply the value of the mission if we add aerial mobility, which would enable us to access a variety of geologic settings, maximizing the science return and lowering mission risk by going over or around obstacles.”
This project has been selected as one of the two finalists for NASA, however only one will be chosen for flight as the fourth mission in the planetary exploration program. The final selection is expected to happen in 2019.