Mission concept illustration
|Mission type||Astrobiology reconnaissance|
|Mission duration||Science phase: ≥ 2 years |
|Spacecraft type||rotorcraft lander|
|Manufacturer||Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory|
|Landing mass||≈450 kg (990 lb) |
|Power||70 W (desired) from an RTG|
|Start of mission|
|Rocket||Atlas V 411 or equivalent|
|Landing site||Shangri-La dune fields|
Dragonfly is a planned spacecraft and mission that will send a mobile robotic rotorcraft lander to Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, in order to study prebiotic chemistry and extraterrestrial habitability at various locations where it will perform vertical-takeoffs and landings (VTOL).
Titan is unique in having an abundant, complex, and diverse carbon-rich chemistry on the surface of a water-ice-dominated world with an interior water ocean, making it a high-priority target for astrobiology and origin of life studies. The mission was proposed in April 2017 to NASA's New Frontiers program by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, and it was selected as one of two finalists (out of twelve proposals) in December 2017 to further refine the mission's concept. On June 27, 2019, Dragonfly was selected to become the fourth mission in the New Frontiers program.
Dragonfly is an astrobiology mission to Titan to assess its microbial habitability and study its prebiotic chemistry at various locations. Dragonfly will perform controlled flights and vertical takeoffs and landings between locations, while powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG). The mission will involve flights to multiple different locations on the surface, which allows sampling diverse regions and geological contexts.
Titan is a compelling astrobiology target because its surface contains abundant complex carbon-rich chemistry and because both liquid water and liquid hydrocarbons can occur on its surface, possibly forming a prebiotic primordial soup.
The initial Dragonfly conception took place over a dinner conversation between scientists Jason W. Barnes (Department of Physics, University of Idaho) and Ralph D. Lorenz (Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory) and it took 15 months to make it a detailed mission proposal. The Principal Investigator is Elizabeth Turtle, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
The Dragonfly mission builds on several earlier studies of Titan mobile aerial exploration, including the 2007 Titan Explorer Flagship study, which advocated a Montgolfière balloon for regional exploration, and AVIATR, an airplane concept considered for the Discovery program. The concept of a rotorcraft lander that flew on battery power, recharged during the 8-Earth-day Titan night from a radioisotope power source, was proposed by Lorenz in 2000. More recent discussion has included a 2014 Titan rotorcraft study by Larry Matthies, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, that would have a small rotorcraft deployed from a lander or a balloon. The hot-air balloon concepts would have used the heat from a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG).
Leveraging proven rotorcraft systems and technologies, Dragonfly will use a multi-rotor vehicle to transport its instrument suite to multiple locations to make measurements of surface composition, atmospheric conditions, and geologic processes.
The CAESAR and Dragonfly missions received $4 million (USD) funding each through the end of 2018 to further develop and mature their concepts. NASA announced the selection of Dragonfly on June 27, 2019, to build and launch in 2024 or 2025. Dragonfly will be the fourth in NASA's New Frontiers portfolio, a series of principal investigator-led planetary science investigations that fall under a development cost cap of approximately $850 million, and including launch services, the total cost will be approximately $1 billion.
Titan is an analog to the very early Earth, and can provide clues to how life may have arisen on Earth. In 2005, the European Space Agency's Huygens lander acquired some atmospheric and surface measurements on Titan, detecting tholins, which are a mix of various types of hydrocarbons (organic compounds) in the atmosphere and on the surface. Because Titan's atmosphere obscures the surface at many wavelengths, the specific compositions of solid hydrocarbon materials on Titan's surface remain essentially unknown. Measuring the compositions of materials in different geologic settings will reveal how far prebiotic chemistry has progressed in environments that provide known key ingredients for life, such as pyrimidines (bases used to encode information in DNA) and amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.
Areas of particular interest are sites where extraterrestrial liquid water in impact melt or potential cryovolcanic flows may have interacted with the abundant organic compounds. Dragonfly will provide the capability to explore diverse locations to characterize the habitability of Titan's environment, investigate how far prebiotic chemistry has progressed, and search for biosignatures indicative of life based on water as solvent and even hypothetical types of biochemistry.
The atmosphere contains plentiful nitrogen and methane, and strong evidence indicates that liquid methane exists on the surface. Evidence also indicates the presence of liquid water and ammonia under the surface, which may be delivered to the surface by cryovolcanic activity.
Design and construction
Dragonfly will be a rotorcraft lander, much like a large quadcopter with double rotors, an octocopter. Such redundant rotor configuration will be able to tolerate the loss of at least one rotor or motor. Each of the eight rotors will be about 1 m in diameter. The aircraft will travel at about 10 m/s or 36 km/h and climb to an altitude of up to 4 km.
Aerial flight on Titan is aerodynamically benign as Titan has low gravity, low winds, and its dense atmosphere allows for efficient rotor propulsion. The RTG power source has been proven in multiple spacecraft, and the extensive use of quad drones on Earth provides a well-understood flight system that is being complemented with algorithms for independent actions in real time. The craft will be designed to operate under space radiation and temperatures averaging 94 K (−179.2 °C; −290.5 °F).
Titan's dense atmosphere and low gravity means that the flight power for a given mass is a factor of about 40 times lower than on Earth. The atmosphere has 1.45 times the pressure and about four times the density of Earth's, and local gravity (13.8% of Earth's) will make it easier to fly, although cold temperatures and lower light must be contended with. Also a higher atmospheric drag on the craft has to be taken into account. The rotorcraft could travel significant distances, powered by a battery that will be recharged by a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG) during the night. MMRTGs convert the heat from the natural decay of a radioisotope into electricity, although increased mass and surface area might sacrifice control. The rotorcraft will be able to travel tens of kilometers on every battery charge and stay aloft for a few hours each time. The vehicle will use sensors to scout new science targets, returning to the original site until new landing locations are verified as safe by mission controllers.
Preliminary studies and modeling contemplate a baseline 450 kg (990 lb) mass for the rotorcraft packed in a 3.7 m diameter heatshield. Samples will be obtained by two sample acquisition drills and hoses, one on each landing skid, for delivery to the mass spectrometer instrument.
The craft will remain on the ground during the Titan nights, which last about 8 Earth days or 192 hours. Activities during the night may include sample collection and analysis, seismological studies, meteorological monitoring, and local microscopic imaging using LED illuminators as flown on Phoenix lander and Curiosity rover. The craft will communicate directly to Earth with a high-gain antenna.
The Penn State Vertical Lift Research Center of Excellence is responsible for rotor design and analysis, rotorcraft flight-control development, scaled rotorcraft testbed development, ground testing support, and flight performance assessment.
- DraMS (Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer) is a mass spectrometer to identify chemical components, especially those relevant to biological processes, in surface and atmospheric samples
- DraGNS (Dragonfly Gamma-Ray and Neutron Spectrometer), is a set of a Gamma-ray spectrometer and a neutron spectrometer to identify the surface composition under the lander
- DraGMet (Dragonfly Geophysics and Meteorology Package) is a suite of meteorological sensors and a seismometer
- DragonCam (Dragonfly Camera Suite) are a set of microscopic and panoramic cameras to image Titan's terrain and scout for scientifically interesting landing sites
The Dragonfly rotorcraft will land at a dark dune field region called Shangri-La. It will explore this region in a series of flights of up to 8 km (5.0 mi) each, and acquire samples from compelling areas with diverse geography. After landing it will travel to the Selk impact crater, where in addition of tholin organic compounds, there is evidence of past liquid water.
The Selk crater is a geologically young impact crater 90 km (56 mi) in diameter, is located about 800 km (500 mi) north-northwest of the Huygens lander (7°N 199°W). Infrared measurements and other spectra by the Cassini orbiter show that the adjacent terrain exhibits a brightness suggestive of differences in thermal structure or composition, possibly caused by cryovolcanism generated by the impact —a fluidized ejecta blanket and fluid flows, now water ice. Such region featuring a mix of organic compounds and water ice is a compelling target to assess how far the prebiotic chemistry may have progressed at the surface.
- Atmosphere of Titan
- AVIATR, another Titan aircraft concept
- CAESAR, the competing finalist
- Colonization of Titan
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- Titan Saturn System Mission, an old concept that included a balloon
- JPL Mars Helicopter Scout
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