Searching for Clues to Our Origins

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It sounds like science fiction: fly a robotic rotorcraft over the dunes of an alien moon, scanning and sampling its organic sands in a search for the chemical building blocks of life. But a team led by APL scientists and engineers is turning this idea into space exploration reality.

NASA announced in June 2019 that it had selected Dragonfly, a rotorcraft-lander expedition to Saturn’s large, intriguing moon Titan, as the fourth mission in its New Frontiers program. Scheduled to launch in 2027 and arrive in the early to mid-2030s, Dragonfly will sample and measure the composition of Titan’s organic surface materials to characterize the habitability of Titan’s environment and investigate the progression of its prebiotic chemistry. 

Led by APL’s Elizabeth “Zibi” Turtle – only the third female planetary mission principal investigator in NASA history – Dragonfly marks a bold, game-changing way to explore the solar system.  

"This mission is a visionary combination of creativity and scientific and technical expertise that will help us understand an exotic world that shares many similarities to our own planet,” said Jason Kalirai, the mission area executive for civil space at APL. “We're honored to have Zibi leading the Dragonfly team in this unprecedented exploration. It is no doubt uncharted territory."

An Amazing Destination

Titan is larger than the planet Mercury and is the second largest moon in our solar system. As it orbits Saturn, it is about 886 million miles (1.4 billion kilometers) away from the Sun, about 10 times farther than Earth. Because it is so far from the Sun, its surface temperature is around minus-290 degrees Fahrenheit (minus-179 Celsius). 

But in many ways, the icy moon is the most Earth-like world in the solar system, a virtual chemistry lab that can provide clues to how life may have arisen on our planet. Dragonfly will explore environments from organic dunes to deposits from an impact crater, where liquid water and complex organic materials key to life once existed together. 

“Titan is such an amazing, complex destination,” said Turtle. “We don't know the steps that were taken on Earth to get from chemistry to biology, but we do know that a lot of that prebiotic chemistry is actually happening on Titan today. We are beyond excited for the chance to explore and see what awaits us on this exotic world.”

Dragonfly’s scientific instruments — to be built by APL, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Malin Space Systems and Honeybee Robotics, among other institutions around the world — will study how far that prebiotic chemistry may have progressed. They also will investigate the moon’s atmospheric and surface properties, geologic processes and seismic activity, and liquid reservoirs.

From the Skies to the Sands

Mechanically, Dragonfly takes the drone revolution to another world, leveraging decades of autonomous flight experience and well-understood flight dynamics on Earth, and applying them in a whole new environment. The dense, calm atmosphere and low gravity make flying an ideal way to travel across Titan; with eight large rotors, the lander — about 10 feet long, with rotors four feet in diameter — is designed to fly more than 100 miles (about 175 kilometers) in total, nearly double the distance traveled by all Mars rovers combined.

The Dragonfly team tapped more than a decade’s worth of data from NASA’s Cassini mission to choose its targets. Dragonfly will initially land amid Titan's Shangri-La organic sand dunes, which are eerily similar to the linear dunes in Namibia in southern Africa, before stopping at some two-dozen compelling, diverse sites during a three-year primary mission. It will finally reach the Selk impact crater, where there is evidence of past liquid water, organics — the complex molecules that contain carbon, combined with hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen — and energy, which together make up the recipe for life as we know it.

“By flying, we can get to a variety of different types of terrains and materials ranging from the organic dunes to deposits from the impact crater where Titan's organics may have mixed with warm liquid water,” said Ralph Lorenz, the Dragonfly mission architect from APL who first drew up designs for exploring Titan by rotorcraft some two decades ago. “Titan is a unique destination for understanding the chemical processes on our own planet that supported the development of life."

Dragonfly’s scientific payload will provide both detailed chemical information and broader context of Titan's atmosphere, geology and interior. Dragonfly will be equipped with a sampling system with drills that will feed surface materials to a mass spectrometer to identify their chemical compositions, especially those relevant to biological processes. A gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer will be able to detect remotely the chemical elements in the surface just beneath the lander. Dragonfly will also carry a suite of meteorological sensors to measure atmospheric temperature, pressure, humidity and wind speed; a seismometer to detect potential “Titan-quakes”; and a set of cameras that will capture sweeping panoramic views surrounding each landing site, microscopic images at sand-grain scale, and aerial images as Dragonfly flies from place to place.

“Titan is a unique destination for understanding the chemical processes on our own planet that supported the development of life."

Ralph Lorenz, Dragonfly Project Scientist

Greater Understanding

“With the Dragonfly mission, NASA will once again do what no one else can do,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “Visiting this mysterious ocean world could revolutionize what we know about how life formed in the universe. This cutting-edge mission would have been unthinkable even just a few years ago, but we’re now ready for Dragonfly’s amazing flight.”

And, ready for a new kind of mission that builds on and fulfills the dreams of past explorers, like the architects of expeditions like Voyager that first ventured beyond the inner planets and provided the first looks at distant worlds on the solar system’s outer frontier. 

Turtle picked up on that theme when closing out a TED talk on Dragonfly -- which has amassed more than 1.1 million views since its online premiere in August 2020. 

"In 1994 Carl Sagan wrote 'On Titan, the molecules that have been raining down like manna from heaven for the last 4 billion years might still be there, largely unaltered, deep frozen, awaiting the chemists from Earth,'” she said. "We are those chemists. Dragonfly is a search for greater understanding — not just of Titan and the mysteries of our solar system, but of our own origins."

TED Talk: What Saturn's most mysterious moon could teach us about the origins of life

(Credit: TED)

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