NASA’s Dragonfly mission will assess Titan’s habitability | digital trends

With the success of the Mars Ingenuity helicopter, we will soon see more robotic explorers observing distant parts of the solar system from the air. Scheduled for launch in 2034, NASA’s Dragonfly mission will take a robotic helicopter to explore Saturn’s moon Titan, a location that is particularly intriguing because it is believed to be potentially habitable.

Titan has a thick atmosphere and low gravity, which makes it relatively easy for helicopters to stay airborne and explore the moon from above. The mission is especially aimed at evaluating the habitability of the Moon by studying both its atmosphere and its surface, approaching areas that are difficult to study from orbit due to the thickness of the atmosphere.

This illustration shows NASA’s Dragonfly landing helicopter approaching a site on Saturn’s exotic moon Titan. Taking advantage of Titan’s dense atmosphere and low gravity, Dragonfly will explore dozens of locations across the icy world, sampling and measuring the compositions of Titan’s surface organic materials to characterize the habitability of Titan’s environment and investigate the progression of prebiotic chemistry. NASA/JHU-APL

To enable this study, Dragonfly will carry an instrument called the Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer (DraMS), and NASA has recently shared more information about this instrument and how it will work. Similar to the system aboard the recent Mars rovers, this instrument is used to analyze samples that will be collected by a drill called the Drill for Acquisition of Complex Organics (DrACO).

Once DrACO has collected a sample, the mass spectrometer bombards it with energy so that its molecules become ionized. The instrument can then classify these ions by their mass and charge, and then measure these classified ions to show what the sample is made of.

This means that DraMS will be able to tell what Titan’s surface is made of, for example. And the researchers are particularly interested in whether the surface has a chemical composition that could lead to the formation of life.

“We want to know if the kind of chemistry that could be important to Earth’s first prebiochemical systems is being produced on Titan,” Melissa Trainer of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center explained in a statement. “DraMS is designed to look at the organic molecules that may be present on Titan, their composition and distribution in different surface environments.”

This information will help us understand whether Titan could be potentially habitable and understand the chemistry that is required before life can evolve.

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James D. Brown
James D. Brown
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