NASA mission to Saturn's Titan will reveal clues on genesis of life

Called Dragonfly, the mission will carry an instrument called the Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer to help shed light on prebiotic chemistry.
Sejal Sharma
An illustration of NASA’s Dragonfly rotorcraft-lander.
An illustration of NASA’s Dragonfly rotorcraft-lander.


How did humanity come into existence? Is there more evidence of human evolution? Though scientists have primarily been able to answer these perplexing questions from decades of study on anatomy, molecular biology, fossils, and direct observation, the search for the evolution of life on Earth is never-ending.

Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, has early Earth-like characteristics and is unlike any other place in our solar system. It has an atmosphere, lakes, oceans, and clouds and receives rain. It most likely also holds within it the building blocks of life. So it’s only natural that scientists are excited to probe and poke the second-largest moon in the solar system.

NASA will launch a mission to Titan in 2027 to better understand the development of life in the universe. The Dragonfly mission will carry the Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer (DraMS). This instrument will help scientists decipher the chemical composition of the Titanian surface and the kinds of chemical steps that occurred on Earth that ultimately led to the formation of life, called prebiotic chemistry.

The space agency says that Titan's great complex carbon-rich chemistry, interior ocean, and past presence of liquid water on the surface make it an ideal destination to study prebiotic chemical processes and the potential habitability of an extraterrestrial environment.

The mission will arrive on Saturn’s moon in the mid-2030s

Once it lands, Titan's low gravity and dense atmosphere will allow the Dragonfly robotic rotorcraft to jump between surface points, spread several miles apart, and collect samples from areas with various geological histories. Dragonfly is the first drone lander capable of flying over a hundred miles through Titan’s thick atmosphere.

The rotorcraft will be equipped with DrACO - Drill for Acquisition of Complex Organics - to help collect samples less than a gram in size, which will be drilled out of the surface of the Titan. Then the pieces will be brought inside the rotorcraft, where they will be measured by DraMS. A mass spectrometer is an instrument that analyzes the various chemical components of a sample by separating these components into their base molecules and passing them through sensors for identification.

“DraMS is designed to look at the organic molecules that may be present on Titan, at their composition and distribution in different surface environments,” says Dr. Melissa Trainer, a planetary scientist and one of the mission’s deputy principal investigators. 

Organic molecules contain carbon and are used by all known forms of life. They are interested in understanding the formation of life because living and non-living processes can create them.