A team of scientists from the Johns Hopkins University wants to explore Titan, Saturn's largest moon, by sending a spacecraft to the ocean world by the mid-2020s.
Called Dragonfly, the mission will explore the complex chemical reactions taking place in the moon and investigate its potentially habitable sites. The team plans to take advantage of the relatively low gravity and thick atmosphere of the moon to fly a dual quadcopter in multiple locations.
What Scientists Can Learn From Titan
Titan is an ocean world not very dissimilar to Earth. In 2004, the Cassini spacecraft, which was retired in 2017, made a hundred close flybys to the moon to map its surface, revealing rivers, lakes, seas of ethane and methane, and vast sand dunes.
The atmosphere of the Saturnian moon is composed of about 95 percent of nitrogen, 5 percent of methane, and small amounts of other carbon-rich compounds. When exposed to sunlight, methane and nitrogen molecules split apart and recombine, forming a variety of complex organic compounds — the building blocks for life.
If approved, the Dragonfly drone will give scientists the unique opportunity to explore prebiotic chemistry.
"Dragonfly is first and foremost a mission to understand prebiotic chemistry. What happened to get from chemistry to biology?" Elizabeth "Zibi" Turtle, a principal investigator behind the mission, said in an interview with Space. "Of course, we can't study that on Earth, because biology has kind of overprinted everything, but Titan is actually the place that is most like the early Earth in the solar system."
The team also hopes to search for signs of extraterrestrial life in the Saturnian moon and examine its potential habitability.
Waiting For The Green Light
However, to achieve the goal, the team behind the mission still has to beat another exciting proposal submitted to NASA's New Frontiers Program. The Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return or CAESAR, another finalist, wants to go back to the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, retrieve a sample from its surface, and fly back to Earth for analysis.
Melissa Trainer, a deputy principal investigator behind Dragonfly, is confident that the proposal will be chosen.
"Not only is this an incredibly exciting concept with amazing, compelling science, but also, it is doable — it's feasible from an engineering standpoint," she stated.
NASA will make a decision later this year. If the Dragonfly mission gets the approval, the team hopes to launch the spacecraft by 2025 and begin the exploration of Titan by 2034.