A Quadcopter Drone Could Soon be Exploring Saturn's Moon Titan
When we think of probes on the surfaces of alien worlds, our minds often conjure images of either the Mars Curiosity rover or that Imperial probe droid on Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back. We don't often think of commonplace drones.
But John Hopkins Applied Physics Lab is currently pushing for just that idea: in a new proposal to NASA (as part of the agency's New Frontiers deep space exploration program), APL claims that a dual-quadcopter "Dragonfly" drone would be the perfect vessel to explore the surface of Titan, the largest of Saturn's moons.
Before you go attempting to send your own drone up through the Earth's atmosphere, the APL Dragonfly will make some adjustments from your standard quadcopter. It'll be radioisotope-powered, since Titan doesn't get enough sunlight to make solar power a viable option (its power source is called a "Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator"), and it'll also be outfitted with a full assortment of tools for scientific measurements.
As for why a drone would be so well-suited to the task, Titan's dense atmosphere and low gravity are pretty accommodating for the flying gizmos, which can fly for longer periods of time in those conditions. And Dragonfly's airborne advantage will be especially useful, being able to maneuver over Titan's surface to explore difficult-to-reach areas, which is handy on a planet full of lakes that would sink poor Curiosity.
According to Dragonfly project manager Peter Bedini, the copter is outfitted with tools for measuring atmospheric composition, gamma-ray spectrometry, "meteorology and geophysics sensors" for measuring wind, temperature and seismic activity, and a full camera suite for taking pictures. Bedini continues:
Regardless of whether the plan seems doable in its current stage, NASA won't be launching a quadcopter into space for a few more years, at least. APL's Dragonfly is only one proposal out of many, and the space agency won't be making a final decision until 2019.
That being said, Titan has become one of the most promising candidates for off-world colonization. It may be cold and a fair distance away - we still haven't sent humans to Mars, let alone far-off Saturn - but Titan is full of lakes, ice and an interior ocean, all of which would come in handy in a colony. Plus, you'd be able to bring your drone.