NASA shortlists Western co-investigated project for future launch to Saturn’s largest moon

Steve Gribben/Johns Hopkins

An artist’s rendering shows the proposed Dragonfly quadcopter landing on the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan, unfolding its rotors and lifting off again to survey the landscape and atmosphere.

NASA has shortlisted a revolutionary strategy, co-investigated by a Western University planetary scientist, for a future launch mission that could see a drone-like quadcopter buzz above the surface of Saturn’s largest moon.

The Dragonfly project would take advantage of Titan’s dense, calm atmosphere to fly from site to site to analyze the massive moon’s chemistry, geology and potential for life.

The craft would have four pairs of stacked rotors that would enable it to zip – as much as an object with a mass of a few hundred kilograms could be said to zip – across Titan geography that has intrigued and mystified scientists for decades. Unlike conventional, slow-moving rovers that suss out a small surface area of Mars, Dragonfly could explore across hundreds of kilometres; all the while scouting for geologic points of interest and taking valuable measurements of surface, sub-surface and atmospheric conditions.

As co-investigator, Western Earth Sciences professor Catherine Neish is helping define and achieve the mission’s science goals and is the lone Canadian researcher on a team led by Elizabeth Turtle at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). The team is developing the Dragonfly project, which NASA has selected as one of two finalists for the agency’s next New Frontiers mission.

“There’s something very ‘simple’ about having a little drone flying around Titan,” says Neish, also a core member of Western’s Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration (CPSX). “It’s clever in a way that people weren’t expecting and, I think, it’s audacious and exciting – and realistic.”

The atmospheric veil of Titan – with its orange-brown haze of methane and nitrogen – obscures high-resolution views of Titan’s surface, only partly lifted via images of one small area by the 2005 Huygens probe. “It’s like landing on a London street and saying you’ve seen the whole Earth,” says Neish.

Based on lower-resolution images from the Cassini spacecraft, scientists envision that beneath the smoggy atmosphere run rivers of liquid methane and ethane that leave behind marble-sized ice pebbles when they flood low lying terrain. A peculiar, ice-water chemical soup near or below the surface could be a nursery for some form of life.

“The chemistry is going to be amazing but I’m really interested in what Titan looks like. I’m guessing it’s just this weirdly wonderful world that looks like Earth – a strange, frozen sedimentary place – but with all the wrong ingredients,” says Neish.

Neish’s specialty is the geology of planetary surfaces, specifically understanding the processes of impact cratering through radar imaging. She is involved in several spacecraft missions with international, multi-disciplinary teams.

The two teams selected for continued study (the other project seeks to grab a sample from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and bring it to Earth for analysis) each received $4 million from NASA to mature their mission concepts during the remainder of 2018. In mid-2019, NASA plans to select a single mission and support its development with as much as $850 million in funding.

If Dragonfly were chosen, it could launch as early as 2025 and then potentially take five years or more to reach Titan, says Neish. In space time, that’s not long, she said, noting that Dragonfly has gone from hypothesis to concept to scale modelling in just two years.

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An artist’s rendering shows the proposed Dragonfly quadcopter landing on the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan, unfolding its rotors and lifting off again to survey the landscape and atmosphere.
Earth Sciences professor Catherine Neish, shown here at Mt. Whitney in California’s Sierra Nevada Range, is co-leading a project that could see a drone-like quadcopter exploring Titan, Saturn’s biggest moon.
This composite image shows an infrared view of Saturn’s moon Titan from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, acquired during the mission’s T-114 flyby on Nov. 13, 2015.