NASA announced last week that it had selected the Dragonfly mission to explore the prebiotic organic chemistry and look for signs of life on Titan. At 3,200 miles (5,150 km) across, Titan is the largest moon orbiting Saturn and the second-largest natural satellite in the Solar System. Larger than both the Moon and the planet Mercury.
Because it is so far from the Sun, about 886 million miles (1.4 billion km), its surface temperature is minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 179 degrees Celsius). Its surface pressure is also 50% higher than Earth’s.
Titan has a dense, nitrogen-based atmosphere like Earth. Unlike Earth though, it has clouds and rain made of methane. The moon’s weather and surface processes have combined complex organics, energy, and water similar to those that may have sparked life on our planet. Other organics are formed in the atmosphere and fall like light snow.
The Mars rover-size, drone-like vehicle will have eight rotors and will fly to dozens of promising locations on Titan looking for prebiotic chemical processes common on both Titan and Earth.
Dragonfly will visit a world filled with a wide variety of organic compounds, which are the building blocks of life and could teach scientists about the origin of life itself. The rotorcraft will fly for miles across the organic sand dunes of Saturn’s largest moon, investigating the processes that shape Titan’s extraordinary environment.
It will take advantage of Titan’s dense atmosphere to become the first vehicle ever to fly its entire science payload to new places for repeatable and targeted access to surface materials.
During its 2.7-year baseline mission, Dragonfly will explore diverse environments from the organic dunes to the floor of an impact crater where liquid water and complex organic materials key to life once existed together for possibly tens of thousands of years.
Dragonfly is scheduled to launch in 2026 and reach Titan in 2034.