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Nasa to send spacecraft to Saturn's moon Titan

Mission could find alien life

Andrew Griffin
Thursday 27 June 2019 22:04 BST
NASA announces a new Solar System mission

Nasa is to send a pioneering spacecraft to Titan, the largest moon of Saturn.

The mission, named Dragonfly, will explore the mysterious world using pioneering drone technology. And it will look for the “building blocks of life”, allowing us to see how life on Earth began.

Titan has all of the ingredients for life – and the Dragonfly mission could find proof of aliens on the distant world, said Nasa scientist Lori Glaze.

It is remarkably similar to Earth, with rivers and mountains that look like desert areas on our own planet. Nasa stressed that the images sent back as Dragonfly flies over the surface could look strangely familiar, like the sights seen as people look out of a plane flying over the Earth.

But it also has spectacular differences. It has clouds and rain made of methane, and organic material forms up in the atmosphere and falls over the world like snow.

The Dragonfly spacecraft is able to land on the world and then hop back up like a drone – flying over the surface before dropping down on other parts of Titan that might be of interest. It will be the first time Nasa has launched a multi-rotor vehicle that can fly around like a large drone.

It can do so because Titan’s dense atmosphere is four times as thick as Earth’s, allowing it to easily leap up and across the world.

“Titan is unlike any other place in the solar system, and Dragonfly is like no other mission,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Nasa’s associate administrator for science at the agency’s headquarters in Washington.

“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.”

The mission won’t launch until 2026. It will then take even longer to actually arrive, going through an eight-year journey that will mean it will not arrive until 2034.

When it gets there, it will bounce around to dozens of different locations on Titan, looking for chemical processes that mirror those that were present on early Earth. In doing so, it will hope to discover how the chemistry turned into biology, allowing life to begin and leading to the variety of living things that surround us today.

It hopes to find those clues as it scours over organic dunes and the floor of an impact crater where scientists think there is liquid water and complex organic materials. Those ingredients may have been together for tens of thousands of years, allowing us an unprecedented glimpse at life’s beginnings.

It will also have instruments to search for indications of life in the past – or even now.

“With the Dragonfly mission, Nasa will once again do what no one else can do,” said Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine.

“Visiting this mysterious ocean world could revolutionise what we know about life in the universe. This cutting-edge mission would have been unthinkable even just a few years ago, but we’re now ready for Dragonfly’s amazing flight.”

The Dragonfly mission is part of Nasa’s competitive New Frontiers Program and beat out another possible project to collect samples from a nearby comet.

Previous missions that were part of the same programme included the New Horizons mission to Pluto and then on to the Kuiper Belt, the Juno probe that flew out to Jupiter, and the Osiris-Rex mission which landed on the asteroid Bennu and will bring back parts of it to Earth.

“The New Frontiers program has transformed our understanding of the solar system, uncovering the inner structure and composition of Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere, discovering the icy secrets of Pluto’s landscape, revealing mysterious objects in the Kuiper belt, and exploring a near-Earth asteroid for the building blocks of life,” said Lori Glaze, director of Nasa’s planetary science division.

“Now we can add Titan to the list of enigmatic worlds Nasa will explore.”

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