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Trending Science: Anybody out there? NASA mission hopes to find answers on Saturn’s largest moon

NASA plans to send a flying robot to Titan’s surface in the search for alien life.

SPACE

Trending Science

© Dotted Yeti, Shutterstock

NASA has announced its latest high-profile mission to send a drone named Dragonfly to Saturn’s Titan, the second largest moon in our solar system. This marks the first time NASA will fly a multi-rotor vehicle for science on another planet, according to NASA's 27 June announcement.

Why Titan, with so many planets and moons in our solar system? The moon is known for its similarity to Earth’s early features and research potential for exploring life’s origins. It’s as geographically diverse as Earth, and has a nitrogen-based atmosphere just like our planet. Titan has clouds and rain of methane. Instead of liquid water, it has liquid methane. It’s this methane-rich atmosphere that scientists believe has all the ingredients required for life. They also believe that Titan experiences weather much like Earth’s.

Dragonfly, an 8-rotor, nuclear-powered drone, will embark on an 8-year mission in 2026 and arrive at its destination in 2034. It’s equipped with instruments to identify large organic molecules. These instruments will assess Titan’s habitability and search for chemical signs of past or present life.

Looking for origins, signs of life

“With the Dragonfly mission, NASA will once again do what no one else can do,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in a press release by the American space agency. “Visiting this mysterious ocean world could revolutionise what we know about life in the universe. This cutting-edge mission would have been unthinkable even just a few years ago, but we’re now ready for Dragonfly’s amazing flight.”

“Titan is unlike any other place in the solar system, and Dragonfly is like no other mission,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “It’s remarkable to think of this rotorcraft flying miles and miles across the organic sand dunes of Saturn’s largest moon, exploring the processes that shape this extraordinary environment. Dragonfly will visit a world filled with a wide variety of organic compounds, which are the building blocks of life and could teach us about the origin of life itself.”

“Flying on Titan is actually easier than flying on Earth,” Principal Investigator and mission leader Elizabeth Turtle, who is based at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, told the ‘BBC’. “The atmosphere is four times denser at the surface than the atmosphere at the surface of Earth and the gravity is about one-seventh of the gravity here on Earth.” She added: “It’s the best way to travel and the best way to go long distances so that we can make measurements in a variety of different geologic environments.”

Will Titan prove to be the ideal cosmic laboratory for understanding what may have sparked life on Earth? Will Dragonfly discover that Titan’s wind, rivers, seas and lakes harbour life today? Time will certainly tell for this ambitious and revolutionary drone helicopter mission.

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