Drones are everywhere – floating over farm fields, diving into disaster scenes, exploring a possibly life-harboring moon of Saturn (record scratch!). Wait. What? No, you’re not suffering a post-holiday food hangover – NASA may very well send a drone to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.
Last week, the American space agency shortlisted a drone concept to launch a robotic Saturn mission in the mid-2020s. Dragonfly, a UAV rotorcraft, will explore the frozen moon searching for life. With an active ocean beneath its icy crust, Titan may be researchers’ best hope for discovering extraterrestrial life in our solar system (albeit likely bacterial).
“This is a giant leap forward in developing our next bold mission of science discovery,” said NASA mission chief Thomas Zurbuchen said. “These are tantalizing investigations that seek to answer some of the biggest questions in our solar system today.”
The project is part of NASA’s multi-phase New Frontiers Program and includes six mission themes: “comet surface sample return, lunar south pole-Aitken Basin sample return, ocean worlds (like Titan), a Saturn probe, Trojan asteroid tour and rendezvous, and Venus explorer.”
NASA officials describe New Frontiers as a “series of principal investigator-led planetary science investigations that fall under a development cost cap of approximately $850 million.” Not a bad deal for under a billion.
The project stretches back to 2014 when NASA announced the concept as the “Titan Aerial Daughtercraft.” The 22-pound drone would detach from a balloon or lander to “acquire close-up, high resolution imagery and mapping data of the surface, land at multiple locations to acquire microscopic imagery and samples of solid and liquid material, return the samples to the mothership for analysis, and recharge … on the mothership to enable multiple sorties.”
“Titan is the richest laboratory in the solar system for studying prebiotic chemistry, which makes studying its chemistry from the surface and in the atmosphere one of the most important objectives in planetary science,” a 2014 NASA report stated.
Back on earth, NASA has already built a solid track record in terrestrial drone research. This past summer, a trio of agency teams garnered permission to launch feasibility studies concerning Unmanned Aircraft Systems. Part of NASA’s Convergent Aeronautics Solutions project, the studies will focus on drone safety and flight management.