The Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s moon Titan is one of two mission concept finalists selected by NASA as part of their New Frontiers program. Professor Catherine Neish of Western’s Department of Earth Science and a core member of the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration is a co-investigator, the lone Canadian on the mission.
According to NASA “Dragonfly is a drone-like rotorcraft that would explore the prebiotic chemistry and habitability of dozens of sites on Saturn’s moon Titan, an ocean world in our solar system. Elizabeth Turtle from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, is the lead investigator, with APL providing project management.”
Neish helped define the mission’s science goals. “There’s something very ‘simple’ about having a little drone flying around Titan. It’s clever in a way that people weren’t expecting and, I think, it’s audacious and exciting – and realistic.”
NASA describes the Dragonfly as “a dual-quadcopter lander that would take advantage of the environment on Titan to fly to multiple locations, some hundreds of miles apart, to sample materials and determine surface composition to investigate Titan’s organic chemistry and habitability, monitor atmospheric and surface conditions, image landforms to investigate geological processes, and perform seismic studies.”
“The chemistry is going to be amazing but I’m really interested in what Titan looks like. I’m guessing it’s just this weirdly wonderful world that looks like Earth – a strange, frozen sedimentary place – but with all the wrong ingredients,” said Neish.
Dragonfly is competing with the Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return (CAESAR) mission. “The CAESAR mission seeks to return a sample from 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, a comet that was successfully explored by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft, to determine its origin and history.”
The winner will be selected by the spring of next year with the mission being launch in the mid-2020’s. The winner will be the fourth mission selected as part of the New Frontiers program. Other New Frontiers missions include OSIRIS-REx, which will rendezvous with the asteroid Bennu this summer and includes Canadian participation, the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Juno mission to Jupiter.