Life underground? NASA's Dragonfly mission to Titan
Updated: Apr 6, 2021
The Dragonfly mission represents one of four missions of the NASA New Frontiers Program, designed to expand our knowledge and understanding of the solar system through 'high-science-return investigations.' Dragonfly is a "mobile lander fitted with 8 large rovers that will be able to fly around the surface [of Titan] like a drone." It is set to launch in 2027 and will take 9 years to reach Titan, one of Saturn's 82 moons.
image credit to Artist's Impression of Dragonfly on Titan’s surface.
Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL
Little Dragonfly rotorcraft will examine multiple locations of Titan for almost 3 years. It will collect
information to understand the habitability of Titan's environment and any changes in the prebiotic chemistry of the planet.
Ultimately the mission will answer the long-anticipated question many scientists are eager to find out: whether some form of life exists below the surface of Titan.
Titan was first discovered on the 25th of March in 1655 by Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens, and continued to pique the interest of scientists through information collected by fly-by missions during the 70s and 80s.
Titan is the second-largest moon in the solar system, and the only moon with an atmosphere. Titan's atmosphere is 4.4 times denser than Earth's, and is composed predominantly of Nitrogen with a touch of Methane.
Titan has long been a site of interest in the search for life beyond Earth.
As a result of data collected by the Cassini–Huygens space-research mission (pictured in the GIF,) we know that the surface of the moon is rock-solid water ice covered with liquid hydrocarbons.
But here is the really exciting part.
We believe that the planet is actually covered by a global ocean under this surface. Cassini in 2012 when measuring variations of sites on the planet, witnessed the surface shifting its position by a massive 30 kilometers in 2 years, indicating that the crust is floating on a liquid layer.
The Menrva crater, the moon's largest crater, has particularly sparked up conversations in the Space community as a site of interest for potential life.
Léa Bonnefoy, planetary scientist at the University of Paris, is one of many scientists who believe that all it would take is the impact of an asteroid or comet. The theory is that the impact would create a temporary warm pool on the surface, and combined with the "organic material cycling from the surface" this would create a "favorable condition for life."
Alvaro Penteado Crósta, a planetary geologist at the University of Campinas describes the mixture as a "primordial soup," that would be perfect for the inception of microbial life.
The abundance of life-supporting elements within Titan's atmosphere not only make it suitable for the formation of life, but also make it the 'most hospitable extraterrestrial world within our solar system for human colonisation.'
A new golden age for space exploration?
Dragonfly will have a lot of the same scientific instruments as the Curiosity rover on Mars, including a skid-mounted drill, that will drill out and store soil samples from the surface. The rovercraft will perform controlled flights to different locations of the moon to: 'Investigate Titan's organic chemistry and habitability, monitor atmospheric and surface conditions, image landforms to investigate geological processes, and [to] perform seismic studies.'
The anticipation for this mission keeps the spirits high after a so-far very successful landing and progression of the 2020 Mars mission.
However, even if we do not find what we hope for, isn't it just so exciting to witness this milestone in history?
Doesn't this give us a future to look forward to?
Space nerds, this is the moment we have been waiting for, it's our time to shine.
Read more about the specs of the rover here