Titan

Titan Dragonfly is Go!…. for Phase C

The surface exploration of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, just got one step closer to reality as NASA’s much-anticipated Dragonfly mission recently received approval from the powers that be to advance to Phase C, which is designated as Final Design and Fabrication, according to NASA’s Systems Engineering Handbook. This comes after the Dragonfly team successfully completed all the requirements for Phase B in March 2023, also known as the Preliminary Design Review or Preliminary Design and Technology Completion in the NASA Systems Engineering Handbook.

“The Dragonfly team has successfully overcome a number of technical and programmatic challenges in this daring endeavor to gather new science on Titan,” said Dr. Nicola Fox, who is the associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters in Washington DC. “I am proud of this team and their ability to keep all aspects of the mission moving toward confirmation.”

Like all space missions, Dragonfly has undergone an extensive process after submitting its mission proposal in 2018 and officially being selected in June 2019 as part of NASA’s New Frontiers program, and hopefully launching just a few years from now. This process includes Concept Studies (Pre-Phase A), Concept and Technology Development (Phase A), Preliminary Design and Technology Completion (Phase B), Final Design and Fabrication (Phase C), System Assembly, Integration & Test, Launch & Checkout (Phase D), Operations and Sustainment (Phase E), and Closeout (Phase F).

With Phase C now underway, the Dragonfly team is working on a launch readiness date of July 2028, which NASA announced today it pushed back from June 2027 at its Outer Planet Assessment Group meeting due to uncertainty in the mission’s budget going forward. While NASA had previously requested a reduction of 18 percent in funding for Dragonfly for fiscal year 2024 compared to fiscal year 2023, the agency stated at the time they had still planned to keep the launch readiness date of June 2027, and was already pushed back from 2026, which was the original launch readiness date when the mission was approved in 2019.

Assuming no additional launch delays will occur, Dragonfly will embark on a six-year journey to Titan with an anticipated landing date of sometime in 2034 with a targeted landing site of the “Shangri-La” dune fields located just south of Titan’s equator. These dune fields mirror the dune fields in Namibia in southern Africa and is also near where the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe landed on Titan in January 2005, as it landed in the western region of Shangri-La. After exploring Shangri-La through a series of flights spanning 8 kilometers (5 miles) each, Dragonfly is planned to travel to Selk crater where it is expected to examine the crater to confirm previous evidence of past liquid water and potentially complex organics, or the building blocks of life. The Dragonfly team anticipates the spacecraft will have approximately 3.3 years of science operations during its time on Saturn’s largest moon and explore between 25 to 30 unique sites.

Artist’s rendition of Dragonfly in flight on the surface of Titan. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben)

While Dragonfly is slated to be the first aircraft on Titan and the first to conduct a powered flight on any moon, it will not be the first powered flight on another planetary body outside of the Earth. This prestigious honor goes to NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, which landed on Mars in February 2021 with NASA’s Perseverance rover and performed the first powered flight on another world in April of that same year.

How will the Dragonfly mission continue to progress and what will it teach us about Titan and its prospects for life in the coming years and decades? Only time will tell, and this is why we science!

As always, keep doing science & keep looking up!

Laurence Tognetti

Laurence Tognetti is a six-year USAF Veteran who earned both a BSc and MSc from the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. Laurence is extremely passionate about outer space and science communication, and is the author of “Outer Solar System Moons: Your Personal 3D Journey”.

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