Skip to main content

NASA’s eight-rotor Dragonfly drone is heading to Saturn’s largest moon

New Dragonfly Mission Flying Landing Sequence Animation

NASA is sending a drone to Saturn’s largest moon in a bid to learn more about the building blocks of life, and possibly provide answers on how it all kicked off on Earth.

The Dragonfly mission to Titan will launch in 2026, with the spacecraft and its drone reaching the icy moon eight years later in 2034.

The ambitious undertaking, announced on Thursday, is part of the space agency’s New Frontiers program, which works toward specific solar system exploration goals.

Titan is the second largest moon in our solar system and its distance from the sun is about 10 times that of our own planet. It’s of particular interest to scientists as it has a nitrogen-based atmosphere like Earth, and its weather and surface processes have combined complex organics, energy, and water similar to those that may have sparked life here billions of years ago.

The nuclear-powered drone has been designed as a dual-quadcopter, so-called for having two sets of rotors on each of its four arms. Operating in an atmosphere four times denser than Earth’s, Dragonfly will make its first landing at the equatorial “Shangri-La” dune fields, described by NASA as being “terrestrially similar to the linear dunes in Namibia in southern Africa.” It’ll then spend about two-and-a-half years “leapfrogging” between dozens of interesting locations on Titan to see what it can find.

Part of the drone’s explorations will include examination of the moon’s atmospheric and surface properties as well as its subsurface ocean and liquid reservoirs. In addition, Dragonfly will hunt for chemical evidence of past or extant life. Its final stop will be at the Selk impact crater, where there is evidence of past liquid water, organics — the complex molecules that contain carbon, combined with hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen — and energy, which together make up the recipe for life. The lander will fly more than 108 miles (175 km) during its mission, almost twice the distance traveled to date by all of the Mars rovers combined.

The mission, if successful, will see NASA’s drone become the first vehicle ever to fly its entire science payload to new locations for repeatable and targeted access to surface materials.

“With the Dragonfly mission, NASA will once again do what no one else can do,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said on the agency’s website. “Visiting this mysterious ocean world could revolutionize 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.”

Dragonfly is the fourth mission selected as part of the agency’s New Frontiers program, the others being the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, the Juno mission to Jupiter, and the OSIRIS-REx mission to the asteroid Bennu.

Editors' Recommendations

Trevor Mogg
Contributing Editor
Not so many moons ago, Trevor moved from one tea-loving island nation that drives on the left (Britain) to another (Japan)…
Saturn’s moon Titan could have the ingredients for life
These six infrared images of Saturn’s moon Titan represent some of the clearest, most seamless-looking global views of the icy moon’s surface produced so far. The views were created using 13 years of data acquired by the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) instrument on board NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.

When it comes to searching for evidence that there was once life outside of Earth in our solar system, most research is focused on Mars or, more recently, on the intriguing findings on Venus. But there are other places where life could potentially have blossomed as well, and a new study suggests that Saturn's moon Titan could be a prime location for habitability.

Researchers from Canada's Western University used data from Cassini's Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer to look at both visible light and infrared images of Titan, allowing them to peer beneath the moon's thick atmosphere to discover more about this strange location.

Read more
NASA’s Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s moon Titan delayed by a year
nasas dragonfly drone heading to saturns largest moon nasa

NASA’s mission to send a drone to Saturn’s largest moon has been delayed by a year.

It means the launch to Titan won’t take place until 2027, with the Dragonfly drone arriving aboard a spacecraft eight years later in 2035.

Read more
Infrared imaging reveals fresh ice on Saturn’s moon Enceladus
best cassini images 7

One of the prime locations to search for life beyond Earth in our solar system is Saturn's moon Enceladus, which is thought to have an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy crust. Now, a new map of the moon made using both visible light and infrared shows where regions of geological activity have deposited fresh ice onto its surface.

As Enceladus is covered in ice, it is one of the most reflective bodies in our solar system and normally looks like a bright white snowball. So to understand more about this intriguing moon, NASA analyzed data from its Cassini mission to Saturn which ended in 2017.

Read more