The Key to Finding Alien Life on Titan? NASA's New Dragonfly Drone Is a Game-Changer
Everyone loves Curiosity, Mars' resident giant rover, but we have to admit that it's kind of slow—in five years, it's only traveled about 11 miles across the Martian surface. That's fine when you're staring at soil most of the time, but NASA needs a more agile vehicle to explore Saturn's moon Titan. Enter the Dragonfly, a quadcopter that's designed to operate in Titan's low gravity and dense atmosphere.
Dragonfly is currently conceived to be a four-propeller rotorcraft that can fly tens of kilometers in a single go, allowing it to travel hundreds of kilometers from its landing site over the course of its two-year mission. As for its destination, there are a couple reasons why Titan is such a fascinating target for exploration.
According to the Dragonfly mission homepage:
"Titan is an ocean world, and the only moon in our Solar System with a dense atmosphere, which supports an Earth-like hydrological cycle of methane clouds, rain, and liquid flowing across the surface to fill lakes and seas. The abundant complex organic material accessible on Titan's surface makes it an ideal destination to study the conditions necessary for the habitability of an extraterrestrial environment..."
One thing to clarify is that those "oceans" mentioned in the description are made of methane and ethane, not water, and the strange hydrological conditions on Titan mean that it may take centuries for an area to receive rainfall. On top of that, Titan's gravity is about 1/7th that of Earth's and even lower than that of our moon. Still, Titan's probably one of the least-hostile places for humans in the solar system.
Titan has been proposed as a target for colonization before, but until 2005 very little was known about its surface. The Dragonfly mission aims to learn more about the moon, including "sampling for organic chemistry and habitability; monitoring atmospheric and surface conditions; shooting and transmitting images of landforms; and conducting studies of the moon's seismology."
NASA is slated to give the Dragonfly project about $4 million to develop its plans and create a new proposal, at which point it will go head-to-head with another project called CAESAR (which stands for Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return) to compete for about $1 billion in funding. Only one project will get the grant from NASA, but we'll have to wait until 2019 to find out which one will win.