Look out, Titan. Plutonium robots from Earth are on their way

NASA announces plans to send RTG-powered drone to Saturn moon. Titanians only have 15 years to prepare

Dragonfly (pic: Johns Hopkins APL)
Dragonfly Mission Overview (pic: Johns Hopkins APL)

NASA plans to terrorise the skies with a plutonium-powered drone. Thankfully not those above Gatwick, but the dense haze surrounding the Saturn moon Titan.

Space boffins at NASA have been pondering where to send the robots next as part of its New Frontiers programme, with ambitious sample return missions also on the cards. The winning mission, from Johns Hopkins APL, however, will see the dual-quadcopter Dragonfly spend two years hopping around Titan. The 'copter has eight rotors and "flies like a large drone".

NASA is no stranger to Saturn. From the Voyager fly-by to the 13 years' worth of data collected by Cassini, the agency has accumulated a wealth of information on the Saturn moon. International astronomical bedfellow, ESA, was responsible for the considerably shorter-lived Huygens probe deposited on the surface by Cassini.

The gang expects to launch in 2026 (two years after astronauts plant a fresh stars-and-stripes on the Earth's moon, if NASA is to be believed) and arrive at Titan in 2034.

The dense, calm atmosphere (four times denser than that of Earth) of Titan and the low gravity of the moon will make for ideal flying conditions. The Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG)-powered drone is expected to make multiple hops away from its initial landing site to cover an area of almost two hundred kilometres over the course of the mission. Each "hop" could be as much as 8km.

The distance covered by the drone will likely end up more than double that covered by all NASA's Mars trundlebots combined.

NASA has planned for a 2.7 year baseline while Johns Hopkins is talking about 2 years. Either figure would make us very happy.

As well as generating some stunning aerial imagery, the probe will search for evidence of past or extant life. Leader of the Cassini imaging team, Carolyn Porco, was however quick dampen down some of the more breathless expectations.

It is difficult not to get just a tiny bit excited about what Dragonfly might find as it explores diverse regions on the moon. Scientists are hopeful that prebiotic chemistry on Titan will provide clues to how life might have arisen on Earth.

Those hops, the transmission of data and the majority of science operations will be planned during Titan's daytime hours (eight Earth days.) The drone will then recharge during the night.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine modestly said: "With the Dragonfly mission, NASA will once again do what no one else can do" describing the mission as "unthinkable" a few years ago.

Er, right.

Last year a helicopter was announced for the Mars 2020 rover, based on concepts bounced around from considerably earlier in the decade.

So scientists and engineers have certainly been thinking about it, and now they have the go-ahead to actually do it.

We just have to wait 15 years for Dragonfly’s arrival. ®

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