Our moon is not enough, NASA eyes Saturn’s
The world is not enough, and neither is the Universe. NASA has unveiled a plan to fly a drone helicopter mission which will cost $1bn (£800m) on Saturn’s moon, Titan, in the 2030s.
The rotorcraft will visit dozens of promising locations on Titan to investigate the chemistry that could lead to life. The moon plays host to many of the chemical processes that could have sparked biology on the early Earth.
The eight-rotor drone will be launched to the Saturnian moon in 2026 and arrive in 2034.
It will take advantage of Titan’s thick atmosphere to fly to different sites of interest.
Dragonfly was selected as the next mission in Nasa’s New Frontiers programme of medium-class planetary science missions.
It was in competition with the Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return (CAESAR) mission, which would have delivered a sample from a comet to Earth.
Titan has wind, rivers, seas and lakes, just like Earth – but with an exotic twist.
The huge moon (it is second only in size to Jupiter’s moon, Ganymede) has its own seasonal cycle, where wind and rain have shaped the surface to form river channels, seas, dunes and shorelines.
The average temperature of -179C (-290F) means that mountains are made of ice, and liquid methane assumes many of the roles played by water on Earth.
Dragonfly will first land at the “Shangri-La” dune fields, which are similar to the linear dunes found in Namibia in southern Africa.
The drone will explore this region in short flights, building up to a series of longer “leapfrog” flights of up to 8km (5 miles), stopping along the way to take samples.
Saturn spins so quickly on its axis that the planet flattens itself out into an oblate spheroid. Seriously, you see this by eye when you look at a picture of Saturn; it looks like someone squished the planet a little. Of course, it’s the rapid spinning that’s squishing it, causing the equator to bulge out.