NASA’s New Frontiers exploration program has included such missions as New Horizons, which flew by Pluto a couple of years ago, Juno, currently in polar orbit around Jupiter, and OSIRIS-Rex, a Sample Return Mission now headed for the asteroid Bennu. NASA is currently deciding the next New Frontiers mission, with the final selection to take place in 2019 for a 2024 launch. According to ZME Science, one of the missions being considered for funding is called Dragonfly, a nuclear-powered dual-quadcopter that will fly around Saturn’s moon Titan.

Why Titan?

Titan, the largest satellite of Saturn, is the only other world of the solar system that has stable bodies of surface liquid.

Instead of water, the streams and lakes of Titan are composed of liquid hydrocarbon, methane, and ethane. Its thick atmosphere is primarily nitrogen with a hint of methane and ethane which falls as rain on occasion and fill the moon’s bodies of liquid. The moon itself is mostly composed of water ice and rock. It’s interior may be hot enough to contain liquid water, Because Titan has a rich prebiotic organic chemistry, these pockets of water may contain life.

How Dragonfly would work

Because of Titan’s thick atmosphere and low gravity, flying would be an ideal way to get around. An aerial drone would be able to pass above rugged terrain with greater ease than a rover could pass through it and with much less risk of damage. Dragonfly would hop from place to place, taking data readings of Titan’s atmosphere and surface.

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A camera would return images of one of the most unusual worlds in the solar system. The probe would be powered by the same kind of nuclear power generator that uses the decay of plutonium to provide heat and electricity that has been used on previous missions such as New Horizons. Because of the vast distance from the sun and Titan’s thick atmosphere, solar power is not an option.

Dragonfly has been proposed by the Johns Hopkins Advanced Physics Laboratory. It will carry a number of instruments, including a mass spectrometer, a gamma ray spectrometer, a suite of meteorological and geophysical sensors, and a number of cameras.

What is competing with Dragonfly?

A number of worthy proposals are competing with Dragonfly for funding under NASA’s New Frontiers program. They include a sample return mission to a comet, a probe to observe Jupiter’s moon Io, and a sample return mission to the south pole of the Earth’s moon. Because of budgetary considerations, only one of these missions can be chosen for full funding.