NASA to send drone to Saturn's moon for clues on human origins

NASA plans to send a drone to Saturn's largest moon

The space agency announced today (June 27) that the next mission in its New Frontiers line of medium-cost missions will be Dragonfly, a rotorcraft created to ply the skies of the huge, hazy and potentially life-hosting Saturn moon. "NASA is pushing the boundaries of human knowledge and expanding the limits of technology". The mission is part of the agency's New Frontiers program, which includes the New Horizons mission to Pluto (and beyond) and the Juno mission to Jupiter. Dragonfly's development costs are capped at $850 million, though the mission's total price tag, including launch, will probably top $1 billion. And OSIRIS-REX, an asteroid-sampling mission is now in orbit around the asteroid Bennu, looking for a safe place to grab a sample next year.

Titan is an unusual yet familiar place.

Some even speculate that Titan's low temperatures and the absence of atmospheric oxygen could allow for exotic silicon-based life. Mountainous dunes pepper its landscape.

Thomas Zurbuchen, Nasa's associate administrator for science, said: "Titan is unlike any other place in the solar system, and Dragonfly is like no other mission".

The underground ocean could harbor life as we know it, while the hydrocarbon lakes and seas on the moon's surface could contain life forms that rely on different chemistries - or the body could be lifeless.

The newly announced Dragonfly mission will be developed and led by Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in the USA state of Maryland. The new mission will pull clues from Cassini, an global spacecraft that surveyed Saturn and moons for 13 years.

This won't be the first landing on Titan: That happened back in 2005, when the Cassini spacecraft dropped off the Huygens lander to send back the first pictures from the moon's cloud-obscured surface. It captured about four hours of data before its batteries died.

Dragonfly will launch in 2026 and arrive in 2034.

Dragonfly's first destination is dune fields that are terrestrially similar to dunes found in southern Africa. Dragonfly will explore this region in short flights, building up to a series of longer "leapfrog" flights of up to 5 miles (8 kilometers), stopping along the way to take samples from compelling areas with diverse geography. Or else, it's also possible that liquid methane can serve the same role as water in the life-forming process.

Once on Titan, the mission is expected to last for about 2.5 years, during which time the probe will perform around 25 hops and fly a total distance of around 180 kilometers (110 miles), according to NASA.

Curt Niebur, the lead program scientists for NASA's New Frontiers program, explained during the press event that this makes Selk Crater an excellent proxy for ancient Earth, and what it might have looked like before life arose.

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