NASA will fly a billiondollar quadcopter to Titan Saturns methanerich moon

first_imgNASA will fly a billion-dollar quadcopter to Titan, Saturn’s methane-rich moon Click to view the privacy policy. Required fields are indicated by an asterisk (*) Email Sign up for our daily newsletter Get more great content like this delivered right to you! Country By Paul VoosenJun. 27, 2019 , 4:00 PMcenter_img The siren call of Titan could not be ignored. NASA’s next billion-dollar mission, called Dragonfly, will be an innovative quadcopter to explore Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, the agency announced today. The craft will soar and hover over the icy moon’s surface—and land on it—in a search for the conditions and chemistry that could foster life.The mission—led by Elizabeth “Zibi” Turtle, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, and also managed by APL—will launch in 2026. It represents a calculated risk for the agency, embracing a new paradigm of robotic exploration to be used on a distant moon. “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 science in Washington, D.C., while announcing the mission’s selection. “The science is compelling. It’s the right time to do it.”Titan is veiled by a nitrogen atmosphere and larger than Mercury. It is thought to harbor a liquid ocean beneath its frozen crust of water ice. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft studied Titan during its historic campaign, and, in 2005, dropped the short-lived Huygens probe into Titan’s atmosphere. Country * Afghanistan Aland Islands Albania Algeria Andorra Angola Anguilla Antarctica Antigua and Barbuda Argentina Armenia Aruba Australia Austria Azerbaijan Bahamas Bahrain Bangladesh Barbados Belarus Belgium Belize Benin Bermuda Bhutan Bolivia, Plurinational State of Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba Bosnia and Herzegovina Botswana Bouvet Island Brazil British Indian Ocean Territory Brunei Darussalam Bulgaria Burkina Faso Burundi Cambodia Cameroon Canada Cape Verde Cayman Islands Central African Republic Chad Chile China Christmas Island Cocos (Keeling) Islands Colombia Comoros Congo Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Cook Islands Costa Rica Cote d’Ivoire Croatia Cuba Curaçao Cyprus Czech Republic Denmark Djibouti Dominica Dominican Republic Ecuador Egypt El Salvador Equatorial Guinea Eritrea Estonia Ethiopia Falkland Islands (Malvinas) Faroe Islands Fiji Finland France French Guiana French Polynesia French Southern Territories Gabon Gambia Georgia Germany Ghana Gibraltar Greece Greenland Grenada Guadeloupe Guatemala Guernsey Guinea Guinea-Bissau Guyana Haiti Heard Island and McDonald Islands Holy See (Vatican City State) Honduras Hungary Iceland India Indonesia Iran, Islamic Republic of Iraq Ireland Isle of Man Israel Italy Jamaica Japan Jersey Jordan Kazakhstan Kenya Kiribati Korea, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Republic of Kuwait Kyrgyzstan Lao People’s Democratic Republic Latvia Lebanon Lesotho Liberia Libyan Arab Jamahiriya Liechtenstein Lithuania Luxembourg Macao Macedonia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Madagascar Malawi Malaysia Maldives Mali Malta Martinique Mauritania Mauritius Mayotte Mexico Moldova, Republic of Monaco Mongolia Montenegro Montserrat Morocco Mozambique Myanmar Namibia Nauru Nepal Netherlands New Caledonia New Zealand Nicaragua Niger Nigeria Niue Norfolk Island Norway Oman Pakistan Palestine Panama Papua New Guinea Paraguay Peru Philippines Pitcairn Poland Portugal Qatar Reunion Romania Russian Federation Rwanda Saint Barthélemy Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Saint Kitts and Nevis Saint Lucia Saint Martin (French part) Saint Pierre and Miquelon Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Samoa San Marino Sao Tome and Principe Saudi Arabia Senegal Serbia Seychelles Sierra Leone Singapore Sint Maarten (Dutch part) Slovakia Slovenia Solomon Islands Somalia South Africa South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands South Sudan Spain Sri Lanka Sudan Suriname Svalbard and Jan Mayen Swaziland Sweden Switzerland Syrian Arab Republic Taiwan Tajikistan Tanzania, United Republic of Thailand Timor-Leste Togo Tokelau Tonga Trinidad and Tobago Tunisia Turkey Turkmenistan Turks and Caicos Islands Tuvalu Uganda Ukraine United Arab Emirates United Kingdom United States Uruguay Uzbekistan Vanuatu Venezuela, Bolivarian Republic of Vietnam Virgin Islands, British Wallis and Futuna Western Sahara Yemen Zambia Zimbabwe The surface it saw had many geologic features similar to those found on Earth, including plateaus, dune-filled deserts, and, at its poles, liquid seas and rivers. But on Titan, where temperatures average a frigid 94 K, the “rocks” are made of water ice and the seas are filled with ethane and methane, hydrocarbons that are gases on Earth. The moon’s stew of organic molecules and water, many scientists believe, could have resulted in reactions to create amino acids and the bases used to build DNA’s double helix. It’s as if Titan has been conducting experiments on life formation for millions of years, Turtle says. “Dragonfly is designed to go pick up the results of those experiments and study them.”Dragonfly is an inspiring selection, adds Lindy Elkins-Tanton, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University in Tempe and principal investigator of Psyche, NASA’s mission to a metallic asteroid. “Titan might truly be the cradle for some kind of life—and whether life has emerged or not, Titan’s hydrocarbon rivers and lakes, and its hydrocarbon snow, makes it one of the most fantasylike landscapes in our solar system.”Given Titan’s complex surface, a lander at a single site would not be able to say much about the moon’s chemistry. Dragonfly leverages the advances in computing and aircraft design that have led to the explosion of hovering drones on Earth. It will carry eight rotor blades, on the top and bottom of each of four arms. It is, in effect, a movable lander, capable of shunting kilometers between sampling sites every 16 Earth days. Titan’s dense air and low gravity will allow the 300-kilogram, sedan-size copter, which will be powered by a radioactive generator, to hover with 38 times less power than needed on Earth.The timing of Dragonfly’s arrival, in 2034 during Titan’s long northern winter, ruled out a landing near the north pole, home to the moon’s evocative methane seas; those sites would leave it unable to radio home. Instead, the quadcopter will explore the moon’s vast equatorial deserts, which are likely fed by a grab bag of material from all over the moon. (“The largest zen garden in the solar system,” Turtle says.) It will search especially for impact craters or ice volcanoes, energetic processes that could provide a spark—and the liquid water—needed for nascent organic chemistry. During its nearly 3-year primary mission, after traveling 175 kilometers in a series of flights lasting up to 8 kilometers each, Dragonfly will ultimately reach the 80-kilometer-wide Selk impact crater, its primary target. The impact that created Selk was large enough to melt Titan’s water-ice crust and liberate oxygen, priming reactions that are recorded in its outcrops.Dragonfly won’t be equipped with a robotic arm, like the recent Mars rovers. Its exploration will first be guided by an instrument on its belly that will bombard the ground with neutron radiation, using the gamma rays this attack releases to differentiate between basic terrain types, such as ammonia-rich ice or carbon-rich sand dunes. Its two landing skids will also each carry a rotary-percussive drill capable of taking samples and feeding them through a pneumatic tube to a mass spectrometer that can analyze their composition. The sampling system represented a risk for the mission; NASA scientists were concerned Titan’s hydrocarbon-rich atmosphere could clog it, Zurbuchen says. “It’s the oil spill version of an atmosphere.” Over the past 2 years, after extensive testing with “pathological” materials and a redesign, Turtle says, the agency’s fears were allayed.Beyond Titan’s surface, Dragonfly will also target its atmosphere and interior. During flight, it can collect measurements, much like instruments mounted on a balloon would. And it is also equipped with a seismometer that could use vibrations induced on the moon by its tidal lock with Saturn to gauge the ocean hidden beneath its crust, which scientists have suggested could be made up of ammonia-water or water and sulfate. Ultimately, the quadcopter’s explorations may be able to last up to 8 years after landing before its nuclear power source peters out.The cost-capped New Frontiers program, with $850 million set for the mission and some $150 million for launch, is the largest planetary exploration line that NASA opens to outside competition and leadership. A significant factor in Dragonfly’s selection, Zurbuchen adds, was APL’s ability to deliver the Parker Solar Probe, now on a mission to explore the sun that’s on time and under budget. Dragonfly went head-to-head with one other finalist, the Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return, which would have sampled primordial ice from a comet and returned it for study on Earth.Previous spacecraft launched under New Frontiers include New Horizons, which surveyed Pluto and recently flew by MU69, an icy object in the farthest reaches of the solar system; Juno, now in orbit around Jupiter; and the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer, now orbiting the asteroid Bennu before collecting samples and returning them to Earth.last_img read more