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.
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.
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.
Giant planets like Saturn don’t just tilt over all by themselves: something has to knock them over, or tug on them gravitationally, to push them off axis. Scientists expect that when new planets are born, they form with almost no tilt at all, lining up like spinning tops, with their equators level to the orbital plane in which they circle around their sun.
But no planet in our solar system is perfectly level. Jupiter is the closest, boasting an obliquity (tilt) of just 3.12 degrees. Earth’s obliquity is much more substantive at 23.45 degrees, causing us to experience an annual cycle of seasons as our homeworld wobbles on its axis. Saturn’s tilt is more extreme yet, with an obliquity of 26.73 degrees (though it’s nowhere near as extreme as Uranus, which is practically sideways, spinning at a 97.86-degree angle to its orbital plane).
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.
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.