NASA Is Sending A Mission To Titan, A Top Target In Search For Alien Life

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For its newest planetary science mission, NASA plans to land a flying robot to the surface of Saturn's moon Titan, which is a top target in the search for alien life.

NASA Is Sending A Mission To Titan, A Top Target In Search For Alien Life

NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/University of Idaho


For its newest planetary science mission, NASA plans to land a flying robot to the surface of Saturn's moon Titan, which is a top target in the search for alien life.


Dragonfly will be the first endeavor of its kind. NASA's car-sized quadcopter, equipped with instruments capable of identifying large organic molecules, is slated to launch in 2026, arrive at its destination in 2034 and then fly to many locations hundreds of miles apart.


Titan is bigger than the planet Mercury and as geographically diverse as Earth. The huge, cold moon features a thick, methane-rich atmosphere, mountains of ice and the only surface seas in the solar system beside those on Earth.


On Titan, though, the rivers and lakes are full of sloshing liquid hydrocarbons. If the moon does harbor water, scientists think that it exists in an ocean lurking beneath the frozen crust.


Titan's complex rings and chains of carbon are fundamental to many basic biological processes and might resemble the building blocks from which life on Earth evolved.


NASA Is Sending A Mission To Titan, A Top Target In Search For Alien Life

NASA


That's the fourth mission to be funded as part of NASA's New Frontiers program, that supports medium-size planetary science projects that cost less than US$1 billion.


According to Science Alert, it follows in the footsteps of the New Horizons spacecraft, that flew past Pluto and the Kuiper belt object MU69; the asteroid-explorer OSIRIS-REx; and the Juno probe now orbiting Jupiter.


It was one of two program proposals which have been under consideration since December 2017. The other finalist was the CAESAR mission, for Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return, that would have circled to the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.


The craft would have rendezvoused with the huge space rock, sucked up a sample from its surface and returned it to Earth in November 2038.




Dragonfly will land near Titan's equator, among dunes composed of solid hydrocarbon snowflakes. It'll be powered by heat from radioactive plutonium, much like NASA's intrepid Mars rovers.


However, with eight rotors, it'll be able to cover much more distance than any wheeled robot ever has - as many as nine miles per hop.


Nevertheless, the craft has to be able to maneuver on its own. Light signals from Earth take 43 minutes to reach Titan, making Dragonfly more complicated than a standard drone.


Scientists had to develop a navigation system which will enable the spacecraft to identify hazards and fly and land autonomously.


In-flight, it'll sample Titan's hazy atmosphere and provide aerial images of the landscape below. However, the craft will spend most of its time on the ground, testing for biologically relevant materials.


Its ultimate destination is Selk Crater, the site of an ancient meteor impact where scientists have discovered evidence of liquid water, organic molecules and the energy that could fuel chemical reactions.


At approximately one billion miles from the sun, its world is bitterly cold; temperatures average -290 degrees Fahrenheit (-180 degrees Celsius) on a mild day. Were more oxygen present, these abundant hydrocarbons (the primary component of gasoline) would quickly catch fire.


The presence of all the methane — a molecule usually destroyed by sunlight in a few million years - is what is most intriguing to scientists. Its persistence suggests some process which is constantly renewing Titan's supply.


They now think that Titan experiences weather patterns much like what occurs on Earth - except its clouds are made of hydrocarbon gas, and its precipitation falls as organic compounds such as rain and snow.

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Thinking Humanity: NASA Is Sending A Mission To Titan, A Top Target In Search For Alien Life
NASA Is Sending A Mission To Titan, A Top Target In Search For Alien Life
For its newest planetary science mission, NASA plans to land a flying robot to the surface of Saturn's moon Titan, which is a top target in the search for alien life.
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