Titan, Saturn’s moon will be explored by the “Dragonfly” Drone

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A re-locatable lander may probe the cloudy skies of Saturn’s captivating moon Titan, according to a new mission proposal.
26 Apr 2017 – Live Science

As the eight-bladed whirlybird travels across the moon, it could investigate some of the most promising potentially habitable sites on the Saturn satellite, where methane and ethane fall from the sky and flow as rivers and lakes.

The lander-size instrument, known as Dragonfly, would take advantage of Titan’s low gravity and thick atmosphere to visit multiple sites over several years, moving from one promising site to the next and recharging between the brief flights.

“It’s such a rich place to be able to explore in situ, and then it hands us the way to explore it,” the project’s principal investigator, Elizabeth Turtle, told Space.com.

Turtle, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Research Laboratory in Maryland, is leading the team that’s proposing an in-depth exploration of Titan as part of NASA’s New Frontiers mission program, which generally funds midsize missions to explore the solar system.

She presented the Dragonfly concept last month at the Lunar and Planetary Sciences Conference in The Woodlands, Texas.

On Titan, flowing methane and ethane rivers and seas provide a unique opportunity to explore the chemistry that could lead to the rise of life. But it’s the thick atmosphere that would make the mission possible.

“The atmosphere is what is giving us this ability to travel on Titan,” Turtle said.

When the Cassini-Huygens mission, a joint initiative between NASA and the European Space Agency, arrived at Titan in 2004, it discovered a world where methane rained down onto the surface into organic-rich lakes and seas. It dropped the Huygens probe onto Titan’s surface, providing a tantalizing peek at some of the chemistry beneath the clouds. Over the past decade, the orbiter revealed even more details about Titan’s surface, including a variety of environments with the potential to have chemical evolution similar to Earth’s, Turtle said.

“The kind of prebiotic chemistry that we’re looking at, these are things we can’t do in the lab — the timescales are too long to do these experiments in the lab — but Titan has been doing them for ages,” Turtle said.

“The results are just sitting on the surface,” she added. “If we can get to these different places on the surface of Titan, we can pick up the results of the experiments. They’re just waiting for us.”

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