Dragonfly Mission has some bold scientific objectives to be achieved when it comes right down to Titan

As any good project manager will tell you, goals are necessary to complete a successful project. The bolder the goal, the more likely the project will be successful. But bigger goals are harder to achieve, leading to an increased chance of failure. When the team behind one of NASA’s most unique missions released a list of targets this week, it caught the attention of the space exploration world. One thing is clear: Dragonfly will not lack ambition.

The list was published in the Planetary Science Journal and addresses many of the looming questions surrounding the second largest moon in the solar system. This won’t be the first time a spaceship has visited Titan. Huygens made a successful landing in 2004, but his instruments were designed to monitor the atmosphere rather than surface conditions, in part because the aircraft’s designers were so uncertain of its successful descent that they hoped to get as much data as possible when it failed on impact.

NASA video about the Dragonfly mission.

That left question marks on some of the most interesting aspects of Titan – including how it was on the surface. Dragonfly has three main focuses that aim to answer these question marks – researching the prebiotic chemistry of the moon, understanding its active methane cycle, and researching chemical biosignatures.

All three of these goals are backed up by the long-standing theory that titanium might be able to sustain life. Any life that formed on the moon would be drastically different from ours – most likely it would have used methane as a solvent instead of water. Hence the interest in the methane cycle.

UT video about the Dragonfly mission.

Even if there is no life on the moon, that does not mean that it cannot eventually exist. Understanding the prebiotic chemistry already taking place on Titan is useful in postulating how life there might eventually evolve and what chemistry was like on Earth before the first life forms were created.

If there is already life on Titan by the time we arrive, Dragonfly is well equipped to find it. Dozens of potential chemical imbalances could indicate a biosignature, and Dragonfly is armed with a mass spectrometer (known as DraMS) and a drill (known as DrACO) to help find them.

Artist’s impression of dragonfly on titan’s surface.
Credits: NASA / Johns Hopkins APL

These tools, along with another type of spectrometer and a geophysics / meteorology sensory suite, will complete Dragonfly’s scientific hardware. But with a start date of 2027 and a landing date of 2036, it will be a long time before a tool is used on the surface of titanium. But what they find there may well be worth the wait.

Learn more:
Cornell – Dragonfly Mission to Titan Heralds Big Scientific Goals
The Planetary Science Journal – Science goals and objectives for the sliding lander Dragonfly Titan Rotorcraft
Science Times – NASA Dragonfly Mission publishes scientific goals and objectives on Saturn’s moon Titan
UT – NASA returns to Saturn’s lunar Titan, this time with a nuclear battery powered quadcopter

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