Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, larger than the planet Mercury, is a strange and disturbed place. But it could also be a kind of “utopia” for astrobiologists.
Its gravity is only 14% of that of Earth; we could fly just by flapping our arms. It has a nitrogen-based atmosphere like that of Earth. It has rain, lakes and oceans made from liquid ethane and methane. It has valleys, mountain ridges, mesas and dunes. There are huge winter storms. It has volcanoes that spit out ice. It’s snowing.
Titan’s prebiotic chemistry may even hold the secret to how life emerged in the early solar system. “Titan represents an explorer’s utopia,” said Alex Hayes, associate professor of astronomy and director of the Spacecraft Planetary Image Facility at Cornell University, and co-author of a new article published in The Journal of Planetary Sciences which defines what NASA’s next “Dragonfly” science mission will do.
The document details exactly what the mission will attempt to accomplish while the “movable mobile craft” is on the surface of Titan:
- search for chemical biosignatures, past or present, from aquatic life to that which could use liquid hydrocarbons.
- study the active cycle of the moon’s methane.
- explore prebiotic chemistry in the atmosphere and on the surface.
“The scientific questions we have for Titan are very broad because we don’t yet know much about what’s really going on on the surface at the moment,” said Hayes, whose main scientific interests are to understand Titan as a complex Earth-like world and the process leading to its evolution.
“It involves everything from the interactions of the methane cycle with the surface and the atmosphere, to the routing of materials through the surface and potential exchanges with the interior,” he added.
What is the NASA dragonfly?
Dragonfly is an autonomous drone the size of a Martian rover with eight rotors that, like Ingenuity on Mars, can easily change locations.
The plan is for him to fly to a new location each day on the Titan (16 Earth Days) to observe and conduct experiments, having previously performed short reconnaissance flights. This would make it the first vehicle to carry all of its scientific payload to multiple locations on a moon or planet.
This is technically possible because Titan’s dense, floating atmosphere is four times denser than that of Earth.
When will the NASA Dragonfly launch and land?
Titan is a billion kilometers from Earth, which means a seven-year journey. It is expected to launch in June 2027 and reach Titan in 2034.
Dragonfly will land in the dunes of Titan’s equatorial regions and its mission will last two years upon arrival.
Why is Titan so interesting?
Titan is the only planetary body, outside of Earth, that is known to have liquid on its surface. However, it is because it is so cold. Titan is 10 times farther from the Sun than Earth and receives about 1% of Earth’s sunlight, which means a surface temperature of about -290ºF / -179ºC. Therefore, ethane and methane behave like liquids and form rain, lakes and oceans.
Titan harbors organic compounds called tholins, complicated organic molecules exposed to radiation and sunlight for a long period of time, about which scientists know next to nothing.
Present only in the outer solar system, it is believed that these molecules could be the building blocks from which life began, as they must have been present at the start of the solar system.
Titan could therefore give scientists a clue as to the conditions that prevailed on early Earth when life first formed.
What was Cassini-Huygens?
NASA’s now dead Cassini probe has spent 13 years exploring Saturn, its rings and moons, and has performed numerous flyovers of Titan. At the start of his mission is also sent a probe to land on the moon. Called Huygens, he plunged into the moon’s atmosphere in 2005, creating a film of his 2.5-hour descent to the surface, where he landed surrounded by rounded blocks of ice. Ancient Huygens saw dry shores reminiscent of Earth and vast rivers of methane.
However, many questions remain because while Cassini’s radar enabled scientists to penetrate the Moon’s thick methane atmosphere to identify Earth-like dunes, lakes and mountains, the data could not. reveal their composition. “For every question we answered during the Cassini mission’s exploration of Titan from Saturn’s orbit, we gained 10 new ones,” said Hayes.
I wish you clear skies and big eyes.