Dragonfly is a NASA mission that delivers a rotorcraft to Saturn’s moon Titan. It is a “relocatable lander” drone designed to fly on Titan, one of Saturn’s many moons, which is considered to be a fairly conducive place to fly a drone.
The reason for choosing Titan is due to the fact that its atmosphere is four times denser than that of the earth. It has a nitrogen-based atmosphere similar to earth, and it has methane rain, and possesses many other organics formed in the atmosphere that “fall like light snow.”* Therefore, when Titan was chosen as the moon on Saturn’s to land Dragonfly, NASA decided to take advantage of that fact by using a drone instead of a typical rover.
Dragonfly was chosen to be part of NASA’s “New Frontiers Program, whose purpose is to “support missions that have been identified as top solar system exploration priorities by the planetary community.”* And the top priority of the NASA mission is to advance the search for the building blocks of life.
Dragonfly will be a large drone with eight rotors that weighs around 1,200 pounds, which is approximately the same size as the Curiosity Rover, but is significantly more maneuverable due to its form.
As a “relocatable lander,” Dragonfly will travel by flight from location to location much quicker than even the fastest rover until now, and according to NASA, it is capable of “flying its entire science payload to new places for repeatable and targeted access to surface materials.”*
Initially when the mission was first announced, it was expected to be launched on Titan in 2025, but the mission quickly suffered its first delay. The launch was delayed due to external factors, including COVID-19’s impact on the Planetary Science Division’s budget. Currently, NASA’s plans are to launch Dragonfly in 2027, which means that the rover will arrive at Titan in 2034, eight years later. Dragonfly will fly to a diverse set of locations to collect and observe. It is estimated that over the course of two and a half years, Dragonfly will fly about 110 miles.
Dragonfly will be the first multi-rotor drone that will be flown on another celestial body and spend nine years flying missions on a somewhat regular basis to collect samples. Furthermore, it will also become the first vehicle to fly — with all its scientific cargo — to various locations for repeated, targeted access to surface materials, as well as, assess how habitable Titan’s environment, is and investigate the progression of its “prebiotic chemistry.”*
According to Lori Glaze, Director for the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington:
“NASA has the utmost confidence in the Dragonfly team to deliver a successful mission that conducts compelling science. Dragonfly will significantly increase our understanding of this richly organic world and help answer key astrobiology questions in our search to understand the processes that supported the development of life on Earth.“*
It is exciting that Dragonfly is the first drone chosen as the vehicle to serve as the top solar system exploration priorities, by the planetary community. What service can be more important than advancing the search for the building blocks of life?