The highly-anticipated Dragonfly robotic rotocraft mission to Saturn’s moon Titan is scheduled to launch in 2027. When it arrives in the mid-2030s, it will hover and zoom around in the thick atmosphere of Titan, sampling the air and imaging the landscape. What could be more exciting than that!?
Well, actually … there’s more: Dragonfly will also be equipped with a mass spectrometer that will help it search for the chemistry of life in this alien world. Astrobiologists want to know if Titan has the same type of chemistry on its surface that Earth did in its early history, which could have helped give rise to life on our planet.
What are the hydrocarbon seas on Titan really like? While the upcoming Dragonfly helicopter mission to Saturn’s hazy and frigid moon should arrive by 2034 to explore Titan’s atmosphere, the need remains for a mission that could study the moon’s mysterious seas and lakes, filled with liquid hydrocarbons.
But, how about an aircraft that could study both the seas and skies of Titan?
A new mission concept that received funding from NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program is called “TitanAir,” and features a flying boat, known as a laker. The laker would be outfitted with numerous instruments to sip and taste both air and liquid, all while soaring and sailing, seamlessly transitioning between navigating through Titan’s atmosphere and gliding across its lakes, much like a seaplane on Earth.
Ingenuity, the helicopter assisting NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover on its mission, has been a huge success. It gathered the achievement of the first controlled flight on another heavenly body, has performed spectacularly over its 28 flights and holds records for both speed and distance. But it might not for long, as a much bigger, more capable helicopter is currently under development. And when it eventually explores Titan in the next decade, it has an excellent chance to smash many of Ingenuity’s records.
Planetary scientists have greatly anticipated using the James Webb Space Telescope’s infrared vision to study Saturn’s enigmatic moon Titan and its atmosphere. The wait is finally over and the results are spectacular. Plus, JWST had a little help from one of its ground-based observatory friends in helping to decode some strange features in the new images. Turns out, JWST had just imaged a rare event on Titan: clouds.
On August 24th, a vital instrument aboard the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) experienced a malfunction that prompted the mission team to take it offline. The problem occurred when the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) experienced increased friction in one of its wheels while in Medium-Resolution Spectroscopy (MRS) mode. The mission team took MIRI offline while they attempted to diagnose the problem, leaving the observatory to continue making observations in other modes.
This came shortly after Webb was hit by a large micrometeoroid in late May that caused damage to one of its primary mirror segments. Luckily, the damage this caused will not alter the telescope’s performance, and the mission team announced earlier this month that they had restored the MIRI to operational status. With everything in the green, Webb has once again turned its infrared optics to the cosmos and acquired some breathtaking images. This includes a new image of Saturn’s largest moon Titan, which recently appeared online.
We recently examined how and why Jupiter’s moon, Europa, could answer the longstanding question: Are we alone? While this small icy world gives plenty of reasons to believe why we could—and should—find life within its watery depths, it turns out our solar system is home to a myriad of places where we might find life. Much like how the Voyager missions gave us the first hints of an interior ocean swirling beneath Europa’s outer icy shell, it was only fitting that Voyager 1 also gave us the first hints of the potential for life on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, as well.
Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, is a fascinating and mysterious world, a world literally shrouded in mystery due to thick clouds that cameras imaging in the visible spectrum cannot penetrate. This was made apparent when NASA’s Pioneer 11 became the first spacecraft to fly past Titan in 1979, and then NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 in 1980 and 1981, respectively. All three spacecraft were equipped with cameras that were unable to penetrate Titan’s atmosphere of thick clouds, although atmospheric data from Voyager 1 suggested Titan might be the first body, aside from Earth, where liquid might exist on its surface.
Titan has become a center of increasing attention as of late. Discoveries from Cassini have only increased interest in the solar system’s second-largest moon. Liquid on its surface has already prompted one upcoming mission – the Dragonfly drone NASA plans to launch in the mid-2030s. Now a team of dozens of scientists has put their names behind a proposal to ESA for a similar mission. This one is called POSEIDON and would specialize in exploring some of TItan’s methane lakes.
Explorers either have the benefit of having maps or the burden of creating them. Similarly, space explorers have been building maps as they go, using all available tools. Those tools might not always be up to the task, but at least something is better than nothing. Now, a new map of an exploration destination has emerged – a map of the river valleys of Titan.
Even meteorologists who forecast the weather on Earth admit that they can’t always accurately predict the weather at a specific location on our planet any given time. And so, attempting to forecast the atmospheric conditions on another world can be downright impossible.
But a new study suggests that an oft-used forecasting technique on Earth can be applied to other worlds as well, such as on Mars or Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.