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Flying Across Titan

February 16, 2018

Most of the spacecraft that have touched down on other worlds have been either stationary landers or wheeled rovers. But a possible mission to the biggest moon of Saturn would take a big jump in mobility — it would fly from point to point like a helicopter.

Dragonfly is one of two finalists for a mission that will launch in about a decade. The other is called Caesar. It would touch down on Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which was studied in detail by an earlier spacecraft. Caesar would grab a sample from the comet’s surface and return it to Earth.

Dragonfly would study the moon Titan for about two years. The small drone would have a set of rotors, like a helicopter, to carry it from place to place. Each hop could cover dozens of miles, allowing the craft to visit dozens of locations across a wide area. It would spend several Earth days at each spot, studying Titan’s weather, surface chemistry, and more.

Titan is one of the most intriguing bodies in the solar system. Its frigid atmosphere is thicker than Earth’s, and it contains large amounts of organic compounds — the chemical building blocks for life. Liquid methane and ethane form lakes and seas on the surface. Titan also may have a massive ocean of liquid water deep below the surface. That combination means that Titan could be a good place to look for microscopic life.

NASA plans to pick the winning concept next year — setting the stage for a visit to a solar system neighbor.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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