NASA’s “Drone-Like” Dragonfly Mission is Exciting News in the Hunt for Alien Life


On Wednesday, NASA revealed the two finalists for its New Frontiers program which could be exciting news for scientists searching for extraterrestrial life. The two missions will further explore past targets—Saturn's largest moon, Titan, and the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko—as the final candidates for its next billion-dollar robotic spacecraft.

Dragonfly, which will use a “drone-like rotorcraft” — sort of a space helicopter that parachutes down to the surface — to study the prebiotic chemistry and potential habitability of various locations on Titan. Dragonfly, would send a semiautonomous quad-copter to fly between sites on the surface of Titan, which features an Earth-like landscape of rivers and lakes filled with liquid methane.


Dragonfly is led by Elizabeth "Zibi" Turtle, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. CAESAR is led by Steve Squyres, a planetary scientist at Cornell University who has long led the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars. Dragonfly would be managed by APL, whereas CAESAR would be managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Both missions would feature a long wait: Dragonfly would arrive at Titan in 2034, and CAESAR's samples would return to Earth in 2038.

With hydrocarbon seas that may contain amino acids and other interesting molecules, Titan is thought to be a place for testing ideas for how life arose on Earth. With a suite of spectrometers, drills, and cameras, Dragonfly would split its mission between science in the air and on the ground.

The rotocraft could travel up to 100 kilometers between sampling sites, and recharge its batteries between flights with a nuclear power source. Although frigid, Titan is otherwise a relatively benign place, and the rotocraft could survive for several years. That could give the team time, Turtle said, to "evaluate how far prebiotic chemistry has progressed in an environment where we know we have the ingredients for life."

CAESAR would also do something unprecedented, Squyres said, by not just sampling a comet, but capturing both dust and volatile ices from its interior. Comets are thought to contain the early building blocks of the solar system, and returning such samples to Earth would allow close analysis. By returning to 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, a body mapped in detail by Rosetta, the mission can target the best sites for retrieving samples, which it will divide into volatile and nonvolatile components for the journey back to Earth. "We're able to design our spacecraft specifically for the conditions we know," Squyres said.

Both will receive $4 million to work on their idea, and in 2019, NASA will choose one to build. The winning project could get up to $1 billion in funding from NASA and will launch sometime in the mid 2020s.

The Daily Galaxy via AAAS/Science.mag and NASA New Frontiers



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