NASA will look for life in space with a nuclear-powered drone

NASA has announced its plans for a nuclear-powered aerial drone, Dragonfly, that will fly from place to place on Saturn’s moon Titan. Dragonfly is planned to launch in 2026 for an expected landing in 2034. The lengthy flight will include a gravity-assist maneuver to increase the probe’s velocity.

The wild card that may change that is the SpaceX Starship, capable of sending Dragonfly on a quicker, more direct route, which may be available as early as 2021.

Dragonfly will be the first space probe that will travel on an alien world entirely by air. It will have a suite of cameras that will take pictures both at a distance and close up. Dragonfly will also carry a mass spectrometer to analyze the chemical makeup of the materials it encounters. It will be able to conduct meteorological studies while in flight and seismographic studies of Titan’s interior at each site where it lands.

Dragonfly’s primary mission will be to search for signs of life, flying to diverse sites, including organic dunes and an impact crater where scientists believe water and prebiotic materials may have existed together in the distant past. The examination of these sites in the unique environment of Titan will advance astrobiology by tremendous leaps and bounds.

Dragonfly will hop from place to place using eight helicopter rotors for distances of up to five miles. It will visit dozens of sites during the primary science mission that is scheduled to last 2.7 years. Because of Titan’s thick atmosphere and its distance from the sun, Dragonfly will be powered by a nuclear energy device similar to the one used by the Mars Curiosity rover.

Titan is one of the weirdest and therefore most interesting worlds that humanity is aware of. It is the second-largest moon in the solar system. Its surface is comprised of rock and water ice. The moon’s atmosphere consists of nitrogen and methane. Liquid methane and ethane comprise lakes and streams on Titan’s surface, evaporating into clouds before condensing as rain or light snow, in short creating a weather cycle much like water does on Earth.

Titan is unlikely to contain life, at least as we know it. The moon of Saturn is 886 million kilometers from the sun and regularly experiences temperatures of -290 degrees Fahrenheit, Because Titan’s atmosphere is so thick, four times that of Earth’s, the surface pressure is 50 percent higher than that of our home planet. Still, no one will know for sure about life on Titan until explorers — robotic and perhaps, in the distant future, human — traverse Saturn’s largest moon. Indeed, NASA engineer Janelle Wellons once speculated that a human settlement could be established on Titan.

Titan has been extensively explored from above by the Cassini probe which orbited Saturn between 2004 and 2017. While images of Titan that were taken from space resemble an orangish blob, Cassini also brought with it the Huygens probe. That was courtesy of the European Space Agency, which entered the moon’s atmosphere and touched down on its surface after being slowed by a parachute. Huygens took images of Titan’s surface, an orange plain peppered with water ice pebbles under a misty, methane sky. The Huygens remains the most distant landing of any human spacecraft in history.

Dragonfly is part of the New Frontiers series of space probes, several of which are still in operation. The OSIRIS-REx is currently in orbit around the asteroid Bennu. Juno is in a polar orbit of Jupiter and has imaged parts of the largest planet in the solar system hitherto unseen by humans. The most famous of the series, New Horizons, flew past Pluto, returning the first images of the dwarf planet and its moons. It then head out toward an unusual Kuiper Belt world called Ultima Thule. Dragonfly, it is hoped, will add to the wealth of scientific discoveries yielded by her predecessors. 

Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”

Tags Drone Mark R. Whittington NASA Nuclear power Space Technology

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