Called Dragonfly, the Mars rover-size, drone-like vehicle will launch in 2026 and arrive in 2034. The vehicle, which has eight rotors and flies like a large drone, marks the first time NASA will fly a multi-rotor vehicle for science on another planet. It will be powered by a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG).
Dragonfly will be designed to fly multiple sorties around Saturn’s icy moon, sampling and measuring the compositions of organic surface materials to characterize the habitability of Titan’s environment and investigate the progression of prebiotic chemistry. It will take advantage of Titan’s dense atmosphere – four times denser than that of Earth – to become the first vehicle ever to fly its entire science payload to new places for repeatable and targeted access to surface materials, says the agency.
“With the Dragonfly mission, NASA will once again do what no one else can do,” says NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “Visiting this mysterious ocean world could revolutionize 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, says the agency, is an analog to the very early Earth, and can provide clues to how life may have arisen on Earth. Like Earth, Titan has a nitrogen-based atmosphere; unlike Earth, it has clouds and rain of methane. Other organics are formed in the atmosphere and fall like light snow. The moon’s weather and surface processes have combined complex organics, energy, and water similar to those that may have sparked life on Earth.
During its 2.7-year baseline mission, Dragonfly will explore diverse environments from organic dunes to the floor of an impact crater where liquid water and complex organic materials once existed together for possibly tens of thousands of years. Its instruments will study how far prebiotic chemistry may have progressed, and will also investigate the moon’s atmospheric and surface properties and its subsurface ocean and liquid reservoirs. Additionally, instruments will search for chemical evidence of past or extant life.
Dragonfly will first land at the equatorial “Shangri-La” dune fields, which are terrestrially similar to the linear dunes in Namibia in southern Africa and offer a diverse sampling location. It will explore this region in short flights, building up to a series of longer “leapfrog” flights of up to five miles (eight kilometers), stopping along the way to take samples from compelling areas with diverse geography.
It will finally reach the Selk impact crater, where there is evidence of past liquid water, organics – the complex molecules that contain carbon, combined with hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen – and energy, which together make up the recipe for life. The lander will eventually fly more than 108 miles (175 kilometers) – nearly double the distance traveled to date by all the Mars rovers 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 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.”
Dragonfly was selected as part of the agency’s New Frontiers program, which includes the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, the Juno mission to Jupiter, and OSIRIS-REx to the asteroid Bennu.
Power scavenging robot ‘squid’ to explore extraterrestrial oceans
Curiosity Mars rover gets smart with AI update
NASA awards contract for lunar Gateway power, propulsion
NASA tests tiny nuclear power system for future space missions
Juno solar power 588 million km from the Sun