NASA has announced that it plans to launch a new robotic lander, dubbed Dragonfly, to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, in 2026. The lander will be quite different from rovers that have been sent to Mars in that it’s a multi-rotor vehicle meaning that it will take off and land at various sites around the moon world.
After the mission arrives at Titan in 2034 the rotorcraft will go to dozens of sites, carrying its entire science payload, to find out several things. It’ll teach us more about the atmosphere, surface, and subsurface levels of the moon, it’ll investigate how far prebiotic chemistry may have developed, and it’ll search for chemical evidence of past or existing life - if there is any.
Discussing the mission, NASA Administrator, Jim Bridenstine, said:
“With the Dragonfly mission, NASA will once again do what no one else can do. 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.”
Scientists believe that Titan is an interesting place to look for life in the universe because of its similarity to the very early Earth. It’s atmosphere is nitrogen-based similar to Earth, but unlike Earth, Titan has clouds and rain of methane. That rain, coupled with the wind that’s present on the satellite helps to create surfaces that are similar to those found on Earth such as dunes, rivers, lakes, seas, and deltas - there are even seasonal weather patterns.
Dragonfly is the fourth mission in the New Frontiers program. Mission #1 was the New Horizons mission which snapped the first pictures of Pluto in 2015, the second mission saw Juno travel to Jupiter making it the first solar-powered spacecraft to explore an outer planet, and the third mission was OSIRIS-REx which is set to return an asteroid sample back to Earth in September 2023.