NASA is developing a new flying machine to explore Titan, the largest and most intriguing moon of Saturn. The mission, called Dragonfly, will send a car-sized rotorcraft lander to study the mysterious world that has a thick atmosphere, lakes of liquid methane, and a possible subsurface ocean.
Dragonfly’s design and testing
Dragonfly is unlike any other spacecraft that NASA has ever built. It has eight rotors, four on each side, that can lift and propel it through Titan’s dense air. It also has cameras, sensors, and samplers to collect and analyze various types of data from the moon’s surface and atmosphere.
To test Dragonfly’s flight performance and aerodynamics, NASA has been using its Langley Research Center in Virginia, which has several wind tunnels that can simulate different conditions. The mission team recently completed a series of tests using a half-scale model of Dragonfly, focusing on two scenarios: the descent and transition to powered flight upon reaching Titan, and the forward flight over the moon’s terrain.
“We tested conditions across the expected flight envelope at a variety of wind speeds, rotor speeds, and flight angles to assess the aerodynamic performance of the vehicle,” said Bernadine Juliano of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), which leads the mission. “We completed more than 700 total runs, encompassing over 4,000 individual data points. All test objectives were successfully accomplished and the data will help increase confidence in our simulation models on Earth before extrapolating to Titan conditions.”
Dragonfly’s scientific goals and timeline
Dragonfly is not only a technological marvel but also a scientific one. It aims to answer some of the most fundamental questions about the origin and evolution of life in the solar system. Titan is considered a prime candidate for hosting or having hosted life, as it has organic molecules, water ice, and energy sources that are essential for life as we know it.
“Titan is unlike any other place in the solar system, and Dragonfly is like no other mission,” said Elizabeth Turtle, Dragonfly’s principal investigator at APL. “It’s remarkable to think of this rotorcraft flying miles and miles across the organic sand dunes of Saturn’s largest moon, exploring the processes that shape this extraordinary environment. Dragonfly will visit a world filled with a wide variety of organic compounds, which are the building blocks of life and could teach us about the origin of life itself.”
Dragonfly is scheduled to launch in 2027 and arrive at Titan in 2034. It will land near the equator and fly to multiple locations during its two-year mission. It will cover a total distance of more than 100 miles (160 kilometers), which is nearly double the distance traveled by all Mars rovers combined.