NASA to Send Dragonfly Robots to Titan, Seeking Life on Saturn's Largest Moon

NASA made a major announcement today that they are launching a mission in the next ten years to send autonomous robots to Saturn's moon Titan, believed to be the best candidate in our solar system for hosting life.
John Loeffler

NASA made the stunning announcement today that they are planning a mission to send autonomous dragonfly robots to the largest moon of the gas giant Saturn, Titan, to hunt for alien life.

NASA Announces Robotic Dragonfly Mission to Saturn's Largest Moon, Titan

NASA surprise announcement today that they were planning on sending robotic 'dragonflies' on a mission to the largest moon of the gas giant Saturn to seek out alien life lit up both the scientific world and the Internet, as excitement for the mission to the leading candidate for alien life in our solar system spread rapidly.


The mission, according to NASA, will launch in 2026, taking eight years to reach the moon, arriving in 2034 and will be the greatest effort ever undertaken to uncover the secrets of Saturn's largest moon, whose abundance of organic compounds, thick atmosphere, and methane oceans make it the leading candidate for finding alien life on another world in our solar system.

Mission for Dragonfly Robots May Be Key Turning Point in Our Understanding of Life

According to NASA, the Dragonfly mission will use multiple sorties of rotorcraft to study and analyze dozens of areas of interest to planetary scientists and astrobiologists. The Dragonfly robots, NASA said, will be "looking for prebiotic chemical processes common on both Titan and Earth," processes that scientists believe naturally gave rise to self-organizing amino acids and then proteins, before ultimately producing the single-celled organisms that gave rise to all life on Earth as we know it.

The robots will have a major advantage once they land on Titan. First, the planet's dense atmosphere which at four times that of Earth's, allows for significantly easier flight. Combined with the significantly lower gravity on Titan, which is less than that on the Earth's moon, the Dragonfly robot will be able to 'hop' significant distances on the surface of Titan, allowing it to cover significantly more terrain throughout its two-year mission than any rover ever could.

Conditions for flight are so good there, in fact, that it's possible that even humans could fly on its surface--assuming they didn't freeze to death; the surface temperature is close to -300 degrees Fahrenheit. This is just one of the engineering challenges that NASA have to overcome with its Dragonfly robots since even robots can be adversely affected by such brutally cold conditions.

The trade-off comes with unprecedented mobility, however, is more than worth whatever additional insulation may be necessary on the Dragonfly robot's more sensitive bits. NASA said that the Dragonfly robot will "become the first vehicle ever to fly its entire science payload to new places for repeatable and targeted access to surface materials."

Titan's Chemistry is Remarkably Similar to Earth in Terms of Building Blocks for Life

Titan is an especially organics-rich environment that looks a lot like how Earth might have looked when it first started out.

"Titan is an analog to the very early Earth," NASA says, "and can provide clues to how life may have arisen on our planet.

"During its 2.7-year baseline mission, Dragonfly will explore diverse environments from 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.

"Its instruments will study how far prebiotic chemistry may have progressed. They also will investigate the moon’s atmospheric and surface properties and its subsurface ocean and liquid reservoirs. Additionally, instruments will search for chemical evidence of past or extant life."

This last bit is what has people so excited for this mission since it is believed that early microbial life might already have evolved on Titan, which beyond the obvious discovery of alien life on another world, would vastly improve our understanding of how life on our world evolved.

“With the Dragonfly mission, NASA will once again do what no one else can do,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said. “Visiting this mysterious ocean world could revolutionize what we know about life 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.”

What Makes Titan Such a Fascinating World to Explore

Titan and Saturn
Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Even if we were certain that life did not exist on Titan, it would still be a far more interesting place to visit than barren, dusty old Mars. According to NASA, Titan is the second largest moon in the solar system, coming in just two percent smaller than Jupiter's Ganymede. Bigger than our own moon and even bigger than Mercury, the makeup of its atmosphere suggests that Titan formed very, very early in the life of the solar system.

It's atmosphere bears many similarities to objects in the Oort cloud, NASA says, which is a shell of hundreds of billions and maybe even trillions of icy bodies and comets between 5,000 and 10,000 astronomical units from the sun--at about 93 million miles, an astronomical unit is the average distance between the sun and the Earth. These icy bodies existed at the very beginning when the sun was still coalescing into the firey ball of nuclear reaction that it is today from a cold and dense nebula of gasses.

The Oort Cloud is all that remains of the once densely clustered rock and ice that started sticking together around 4.5 billion years ago to form the first planets, hollowing out the center of the shell to form the neat, comparatively small solar system within. Titan may have been one of these very early structures built out of old Oort Cloud debris.

How it came under the influence of Saturn isn't known, but NASA believes that Titan has been a part of Saturn's array of moons for a while now. With a radius of around 1,600 miles across, it is about 50% wider than our moon and orbits Saturn at about twice the distance, about 759,000 miles, as our moon does from us and completes a full orbit in about 15 days and 22 hours. Like our moon, Titan is tidally locked with Saturn, so it always presents the same side of itself to Saturn at it orbits. This stability takes time to settle into place, so its highly unlikely that Titan was a recent addition to the Saturnian system.

Saturn itself is tilted on about the same angle as the Earth is on its axis, meaning that Saturn experiences seasons similar to Earth's, though its much longer orbital period around the sun--a Saturnian year is about 29 Earth years--means that its seasons last for a little more than seven years at a time. Given its strong influence on its system of moons, Titan has a similar tilt on its axis, so it experiences the different seasons at the same time as the planet it orbits.

What really makes Titan stand out from all the other moons, and even planets, in the solar system is its atmosphere and its surface. It is the only moon in the solar system with a thick atmosphere, but more importantly, it is the only other known body in our solar system to have standing pools of liquid on its surface in the form of liquid methane and other natural gases.

Since Titan is so cold, water ice serves the same function on Titan that solid rock does on here on Earth, forming all kinds of geological features on its surface. There are even suspected eruptions of water volcanos on the surface, where relatively hot liquid water from oceans or seas under the surface ice break through under pressure, scorching the frigid surface with room temperature water.

Even more insane is that Titan's methane and ethane evaporate, form clouds, and then rain back down on the icy mountain tops. After these natural gas storms shower droplets of liquid methane and ethane at high altitudes, this liquid then flows down in rivers, carving channels and valleys into the surface ice as it makes its way back down to the many lakes and oceans of liquid methane at sea level. It is a mirror-image of Earth's all-important water cycle, and Titan is the only known body in the universe other than Earth that has this liquid dynamism on its surface.

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