NASA’s Dragonfly to explore Saturn’s moon Titan

Saturn's largest moon is an Earth-like world that likely has conditions suitable for supporting life. A new NASA spacecraft will spend almost three years studying its surface.

Artist’s impression showing NASA’s Dragonfly lander on Saturn’s moon Titan. Credit: NASA/JHU APL

NASA has announced plans to send a spacecraft to explore Saturn’s largest moon Titan in search for evidence of the chemicals and conditions necessary for life. The spacecraft – named ‘Dragonfly’ – is due to launch in 2026 and arrive at Titan in 2034, where it will spend 2.7 years during its baseline mission at multiple sites on the icy moon.

Advertisement

Titan is one of the most Earth-like worlds in the Solar System. Despite being a moon, it has an atmosphere that is nitrogen-based like Earth.

It also has clouds and rain, but rather than water they consist mostly of methane.

Liquid methane falls as rain and pools as a liquid on Titan’s surface.

Other complex organics form in Titan’s atmosphere and fall like snow. It is one of the most promising places in our Solar System to search for signs of life.

The moon Titan appears in front of Saturn in an image captured by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
The moon Titan appears in front of Saturn in an image captured by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Dragonfly will explore multiple environments on Titan, from organic dunes to the floor of an impact crater where liquid water existed with organic material, potentially for tens of thousands of years.

The spacecraft is equipped with instruments to show whether these conditions led to the development of prebiotic chemistry, and to what extent.

Dragonfly will also examine Titan’s atmosphere and its surface, including its subsurface oceans.

It will not be the first spacecraft from Earth to land on Titan. The Cassini spacecraft spent 13 years exploring Saturn and its moons before ending its mission by making a controlled dive into the ringed planet’s atmosphere on 15 September 2017.

While at the Saturnian system Cassini studied Titan from afar, but also launched the European Space Agency’s Huygens lander, which made a controlled descent onto the surface of Titan in January 2005 giving scientists on Earth their first glimpse of this intriguing icy world.

Views of Titan’s surface as seen by the Huygens lander during its descent onto the surface of the icy moon, 14 January 2005. Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Views of Titan’s surface as seen by the Huygens lander during its descent onto the icy moon, 14 January 2005. Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Cassini data has informed the planing of the Dragonfly mission; specifically helping NASA scientists choose when to land the spacecraft during a calm weather period and which sites will be best for scientific exploration.

Dragonfly will touch down at Titan’s equatorial ‘Shangri-La’ dune fields, which NASA says are similar to dunes in Namibia on Earth.

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.
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for Science

The spacecraft will conduct short flights in the region, progressing to longer flights of 8km at a time, during which it will sample the surrounding area.

It will then reach Titan’s Selk impact crater, which contains evidence of past liquid water and organics.

These organics – carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen – combine with water on Earth to provide conditions suitable for life to evolve.

Dragonfly will explore whether these conditions were enough to support life on Titan.

An image of Titan captured by the Cassini spacecraft on July 2009. The bright spot at the top of Titan’s disc is sunlight reflecting off the surface of a hydrocarbon lake. Dragonfly will explore these pools of liquid to search for conditions suitable for the development of life. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/DLR
An image of Titan captured by the Cassini spacecraft on July 2009. The bright spot at the top of Titan’s disc is sunlight reflecting off the surface of a hydrocarbon lake. Dragonfly will explore these pools of liquid to search for conditions suitable for the development of life. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/DLR

The lander will fly over 175km in total; almost double the total distance travelled so far by every Mars rover combined.

“Titan is unlike any other place in the Solar System, and Dragonfly is like no other mission,” says Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for Science.

“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.”

Advertisement

An animation showing how Dragonfly will land on and explore Saturn’s moon Titan.