Categories: Titan

Dragonfly Mission has Some Ambitious Science Goals to Accomplish When it Arrives at Titan

As any good project manager will tell you, goals are necessary to complete any successful project.  The more audacious the goal, the more potentially successful the project will be.  But bigger goals are harder to hit, leading to an increased chance of failure.  So when the team behind one of NASA’s most unique missions released a list of goals this week, the space exploration world took notice.  One thing is clear – Dragonfly will not lack ambition.

The list was published in The Planetary Science Journal and addresses many of the looming questions surrounding the second-largest moon in the solar system.  This won’t be the first time a spacecraft visited Titan.  Huygens made a successful landing in 2004, but its instruments were designed to monitor the atmosphere rather than surface conditions, partly because the craft’s designers were so unsure about its successful descent they hoped to get as much data as they could if it failed on impact.

NASA video discussing the Dragonfly mission.

That left question marks on some of the most interesting aspects of Titan – including what it was like on the surface.  There are three main focus areas for Dragonfly, which hope to address those question marks – researching the moon’s prebiotic chemistry, understanding its active methane cycle, and exploring any chemical biosignatures.

All three of those goals are underpinned by the long-standing theory that Titan might be able to support life.  Any life that formed on the moon would be drastically different from our own – most likely, it would have evolved to use methane as a solvent rather than water.  Hence the interest in the methane cycle.

UT Video discussing the Dragonfly mission.

Even if there isn’t life on the moon, that doesn’t mean there couldn’t eventually be.  Understanding whatever prebiotic chemistry is already taking place on Titan is useful for postulating what life might eventually evolve there and what the chemistry on Earth was like before the first lifeforms were created.

If there is already life on Titan when we arrive, Dragonfly will be well equipped to find it.  Dozens of potential chemical imbalances could indicate a biosignature, and Dragonfly is equipped with a mass spectrometer (known as DraMS) and a drill (known as DrACO) to find it.  

Artist’s Impression of Dragonfly on Titan’s surface.
Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

Those tools, along with another type of spectrometer and a geophysics/meteorology sensory suite, will complete Dragonfly’s complement of scientific hardware.  But with a launch date of 2027 and a landing date of 2036, it will be a long time before any tool will be put into action on the surface of Titan.  But what they find there might very well be worth the wait.

Learn More:
Cornell – Dragonfly mission to Titan announces big science goals
The Planetary Science Journal – Science Goals and Objectives for the Dragonfly Titan Rotorcraft Relocatable Lander
Science Times – NASA Dragonfly Mission Releases Science Goals and Objectives on Saturn’s Moon Titan
UT – NASA is Going Back to Saturn’s Moon Titan, this Time With a Nuclear Battery-Powered Quadcopter

Andy Tomaswick

Recent Posts

NASA Simulation Shows What Happens When Stars Get Too Close to Black Holes

What happens to a star when it strays too close to a monster black hole?…

5 hours ago

The Parker Solar Probe is getting pelted by hypervelocity dust. Could they damage spacecraft?

There’s a pretty significant disadvantage to going really fast - if you get hit with…

8 hours ago

The Decadal Survey is out! What new Missions and Telescopes are in the Works?

It’s that time again.  Once every ten years, the American astronomy community joins forces through…

9 hours ago

This is a Classic Example of a Reflection Nebula, Where the Reflected Light From Young Hot Stars Illuminates a Protostellar Cloud of Gas and Dust

The interplay of energy and matter creates beautiful sights. Here on Earth, we enjoy rainbows,…

9 hours ago

A Gravitational Lens Shows the Same Galaxy Three Times

Images from the Hubble Space Telescope are often mind-bending in both their beauty and wealth…

14 hours ago

NASA Launches DART, to Learn how to Defend the Earth From a Future Asteroid Impact

NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) just launched and will intercept a Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA)…

1 day ago