NASA’s Dragonfly in search of life on Titan

Saturn’s Titan moon is one of the most intriguing places in the solar system, so much so that NASA plans to send a rotorcraft there in the mid-2030s. The science team behind this Dragonfly mission have now set their goals. and scientific goals, with the search for signs of life at the top of the list.

Titan is surprisingly similar to Earth – it has a thick atmosphere, and it’s the only other place we know of that has liquid lakes, oceans, rains, and rivers. The main difference is that these are not filled with water, but with liquid methane and ethane. As such, Titan could turn out to be home to strange alien life forms that use different biological processes than Terrans.

In 2019, NASA selected the Dragonfly mission to explore this strange world. As the name suggests, the mission would feature some sort of robotic helicopter that would jump to the surface, like a larger version of the Ingenuity drone that is currently exploring Mars alongside the Perseverance rover.

Dragonfly would take samples of surface organics and water ice before traveling to a new location every 16 days (Earth)

Johns Hopkins / APL

And now, the science team behind the Dragonfly mission has outlined its goals and objectives. The underlying theme is life – specifically, whether Titan harbors, possesses, or could harbor life in some form or another. Scientists have already detected some possible markers of prebiotic chemistry, such as organic compounds and molecules that resemble those that would have existed on early Earth. The machine will therefore examine whether the conditions are favorable for the installation of life, by studying the global cycle of methane, how the atmosphere interacts with surface materials and where water can mix with organic matter.

Another key is to determine if it would be “life as we know it” or not, that is, if it is water-based like us, or if it uses liquid hydrocarbons available in the lakes. and the seas of Titan. Importantly, Dragonfly will look for chemical biosignatures that could indicate past or present life of one or the other type.

The team selected a landing site that would give them access to places that could contain the answers to all of these questions. Dragonfly will first land among the dunes near the equator, where it will be able to sample organic sediments, then explore the interdune regions to sample water ice. The craft would stay at each location for a full Titan day (roughly 16 Earth days) before taking off and moving to a new location. Ultimately, the craft would head towards Selk Crater, a 50-mile-wide crater that could leave traces of water having mixed with surface organic material.

Artist's impression of the Dragonfly landing - and its new take-off
Artist’s impression of the Dragonfly landing – and its new take-off

Johns Hopkins / APL

“Titan represents an explorer’s utopia,” explains Alex Hayes, co-author of the study. “The scientific questions we have for Titan are very broad because we don’t yet know much about what is really going on on the surface. For every question we answered while exploring Titan by the Cassini mission from Saturn’s orbit, we won 10 new ones.

We still have a bit of a wait before we get answers. Dragonfly is slated to launch in 2026 and won’t arrive on Titan until 2034. But when it does, the footage and data we collect could be some of the most fascinating we’ve ever seen.

The research was published in the Journal of Planetary Sciences.

Source: Cornell University

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