Johns Hopkins researcher Elizabeth “Zibi” Turtle already had the coolest name in planetary science. Now she has the coolest mission, too.
Almost has, we should say. Today NASA picked her Dragonfly Titan lander as one of two projects with a chance to launch under the agency’s New Horizons program in 2025 (the competition is a sample return mission to the same comet Rosetta visited in 2014). Only one of these concepts will be selected for funding in 2019 (with a cost cap of $850 million), but I can tell you which one I’d choose, even before the detailed tradeoffs are done.
I’d go to Saturn’s moon Titan, which is on anyone’s short list of the most interesting places in the solar system, both for its astrobiological potential (lots of organic material) and its weird geology (lakes of liquid methane, come on!).
Mission planners once envisioned a fixed-wing aircraft to explore Titan, but a dual quadcopter would have the advantage of being able to make repeated soft landings and visit multiple sites, spaced as much as hundreds of miles apart. The air on Titan is four times as dense as it is on Earth, and gravity is one-seventh as strong, both of which make flying very practical on this otherwise alien world.
Turtle, the principal investigator for Dragonfly at Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory, said during a NASA press conference today that the rotorcraft would carry four instruments: a camera suite, two kinds of spectrometer for assessing the composition and chemistry of the Titan surface, and a geophysics and meteorology package. With its great mobility—no planetary robot has roamed anywhere near hundreds of miles from its landing site—Dragonfly could visit many different geologic settings. It would be expected to operate for years following a landing on Titan in 2034.
Two other missions—to Venus and Saturn’s moon Enceladus—were also selected for further technology development. Both are fascinating places, and most planetary scientists would be happy to explore either one. But a drone buzzing around on one of Saturn’s moons—that would be something worth tuning in for. Let’s hope the Dragonfly team doesn’t hit any showstoppers as they refine their concept further over the next year or so.