It’s official: We’re going back to Saturn’s moon Titan, the second largest moon in the solar system and the only known natural satellite with a dense atmosphere.
On Thursday, NASA greenlit a mission called Dragonfly, which will deploy a dual quadcopter capable of flying to different locations on Titan. The 1,000-pound rotorcraft is currently slated for launch in 2026 to arrive at Titan in 2034.
“Titan is unlike any other place in the solar system, and Dragonfly is like no other mission,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, in a statement. “It’s remarkable to think of this rotorcraft flying miles and miles across the organic sand dunes of Saturn’s largest moon, exploring the processes that shape this extraordinary environment.”
Titan is about 50 percent larger than Earth’s moon and is shrouded by a smoggy nitrogen-based atmosphere. The thick gas layer obscures its surface, but the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe was able to sneak a peak in 2005 after NASA’s Cassini spacecraft delivered it to the moon.
Huygens, which remains the only spacecraft ever to land on an outer solar system world, confirmed that Titan is awash in liquid hydrocarbon seas and lakes. These compounds, which include ethane and methane, are packed with the ingredients for life, which has made Titan an alluring target to astrobiologists for decades.
“Dragonfly will visit a world filled with a wide variety of organic compounds, which are the building blocks of life and could teach us about the origin of life itself,” Zurbuchen said.
Huygens was designed to send back only a few hours worth of data and images from its descent and landing, and it died as planned shortly after its arrival on the Titanian surface.
Dragonfly, in contrast, will be built for a much longer mission duration of two years. The mission team, led by planetary scientist Elizabeth Turtle, plans to land in the dune fields on the moon’s equator.
From there, Dragonfly will perform short flights of about five miles each that will allow it to explore and sample a range of landscapes. Its total mileage is expected to be more than 100 miles, which will make it the most well-traveled planetary probe in history.