Jun 27, 2019 - Science

NASA will send a drone to Saturn's largest moon

NASA's Cassini spacecraft chronicles the change of seasons as it captures clouds concentrated near the equator of Saturn's largest moon, Titan.

A view of Titan as seen by NASA's Cassini spacecraft. Photo: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

NASA is going to Saturn's largest moon, Titan. The space agency has selected the Dragonfly mission to learn more about the mysterious world from close range.

Why it matters: Studying Titan for an extended period of time from the world's surface will reveal aspects of the moon that we've only gotten a tantalizing glimpse of in the past. Scientists think that Titan could help unlock the mysteries of how life evolved.

Dragonfly is a drone designed to fly above Titan's surface, dropping down to investigate parts of the moon including its dunes and craters.

  • NASA is planning to launch the spacecraft in 2026, with an arrival at Titan in 2034.
“The instruments on board will help us investigate organic chemistry, evaluate habitability and search for chemical signatures of past or even present life,”
— NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during the announcement

The big picture: Titan is alien in the most compelling sense. The moon has a thick atmosphere and bodies of liquid ethane and methane on its surface.

The backdrop: This won't be humanity's first visit to Titan. The Huygens lander also touched down on the moon's surface, giving scientists on Earth a brief look.

  • Huygens studied Titan's atmosphere during its descent to the surface, but the lander only survived for a little over an hour after touchdown, beaming home photos after landing.
  • Dragonfly is part of the agency's New Frontiers program that was also responsible for the New Horizon's mission to Pluto, Juno's mission to Jupiter and the OSIRIS-REx mission to an asteroid.
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