NASA is taking what it’s learned from its groundbreaking Ingenuity Mars helicopter to create an even more complex flying machine to explore Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.
Whereas Ingenuity features a single rotor and a height of just 19.3 inches, Dragonfly has eight rotors and is the size of a small car.
A team of researchers led by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Maryland has the advantage of Titan’s thick atmosphere, which will be easier to fly in than Mars’ considerably thinner atmosphere. Its low gravity will also help the flying machine to stay airborne.
In a recent update on the progress of Dragonfly’s development, NASA’s Patricia Talbert said the mission team has been paying regular visits to the space agency’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, to test out Dragonfly’s flight systems inside the facility’s various wind tunnels, with gathered data helping it to refine the aircraft’s design.
On its latest trip to NASA Langley, the team tested a half-scale Dragonfly while focusing on two particular flight configurations: Dragonfly’s descent and transition to powered flight upon reaching Titan, and forward flight over the moon’s surface.
“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,” test lead Bernadine Juliano of APL said in a release. “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 is NASA’s only mission to the surface of another ocean world. It’s expected to reach Titan in 2034 after launching from Earth in 2027. Titan bears some similarities to the very early Earth and scientists hope that with its suite of cameras, sensors, and samplers, Dragonfly will be able to make discoveries that tell us how life may have begun on our own planet.
“With Dragonfly, we’re turning science fiction into exploration fact,” said Ken Hibbard, Dragonfly mission systems engineer at APL. “The mission is coming together piece by piece, and we’re excited for every next step toward sending this revolutionary rotorcraft across the skies and surface of Titan.”
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