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NASA chooses Dragonfly for their New Frontiers Mission

Image: NASA

This afternoon, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s Associate Administrator of Science, and Lori Glaze, NASA’s Director of Planetary Sciences, announced they have chosen Dragonfly as their New Frontiers mission. This rotorcraft is designed to fly around through the thick atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan. It uses 8 propellers in a quadcopter configuration to efficiently fly around the surface of Titan to explore and collect research on various locations.

First off, why go to Titan instead of Europa or Enceladus, which has signs of water on the surface. Titan is the only Moon in our solar system that has a thick atmosphere, which enables the rotorcraft to fly around using its 8 propellers. Secondly, the moon features a Methane cycle, which is similar to the water cycle on Earth. Instead of liquid water being precipitated to the surface from clouds, liquid Methane rains from the sky, and the rotorcraft is built to withstand these conditions. Most importantly, Titan harnesses the ingredients necessary to create and support life.

Dragonfly is currently planned to launch in 2026, on a rocket that they will choose about 3 years before the launch date (2023). They need to wait until after the spacecraft has been assembled to estimate how much energy will be needed to launch it to Saturn. Regardless of the launch vehicle, Dragonfly will use the Earth’s gravity well as an extra “slingshot” to raise its orbit to encounter Saturn without having to use a lot of fuel. If the schedule holds, Dragonfly is expected to arrive at Titan in 2034, after about 8 years of coasting through space and making minor adjustments to its orbit.

Photo: Johns Hopkins APL

On board Dragonfly are a large array of scientific instruments to measure and monitor the composition and weather patterns of Titan! Dragonfly has forward and downward facing cameras to help with autonomous navigation and landing across the surface as well as being used to capture high-resolution photographs to transmit back to Earth. These cameras are also used for hazard avoidance so it won’t collide into any obstacles that occur along its planned flight path. On top of the main antennae dish, there are two more cameras which will be used to capture high-resolution 360 degree photos of the landing site and its surroundings. Instead of wheels, this rotorcraft features landing skids that have drills built into them, which can collect samples from the surface and transport them into the body of the craft for composition analysis. On board are also meteorological instruments to study and monitor the weather patterns on Titan to get a better understanding of the climate and activity of the planet, such as the Methane cycle. All of these instruments, including the propellers, are powered by a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG), which uses heat from a decaying isotope to generate electricity.

Elizabeth Turtle, the Principal Investigator of the Dragonfly mission, and her team are very excited to start working on making this mission a reality and are looking forward to what breakthroughs it makes while soaring through the skies of Titan.

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