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NASA is sending a robot to Saturn’s giant moon Titan and instead of landing, orbiting, or driving when it gets there, this mission will fly.

Host: Caitlin Hofmeister

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[ ♪ Intro ].

Few things are cooler than exploring somewhere that's totally new. So when NASA unveiled their latest destination last week, it got a lot of scientists, really, excited.

The big news? NASA is sending a robot to Saturn's giant moon Titan! The mission is called Dragonfly, and it's not just going somewhere different:.

It'll also explore its target in a totally new way. Instead of landing, orbiting, or driving on another world, Dragonfly will fly. It's basically a science-y version of the quadcopter drones you can buy in a store, just much, much bigger.

And NASA is hoping this new approach will cover more area, and return more science, than ever before. Of all the places in the solar system, Titan might be the one that most closely resembles Earth. There aren't, like, trees growing everywhere or anything, but Titan does share a striking number of features with our planet.

For one, it's the only other place in the solar system with a bunch of liquid on its surface. Since the temperature on Titan is roughly negative one hundred eighty degrees Celsius, that liquid is mostly ethane and methane, not water, but, still, it's a place with oceans, rivers, and lakes. And it even rains on Titan.

This moon is also the only one with a significant atmosphere. And, even more than that, its atmosphere is also rich with nitrogen, just like ours. Titan might even have a surface shaped by volcanism, although its volcanoes would spew melted water instead of molten rock.

Understandably, NASA has a lot of questions about this place. They're curious how Titan evolved like it did, and they're wondering what the moon can teach us about our home. These are questions Dragonfly is hoping to answer.

Dragonfly builds on thirteen years of research conducted by NASA's Cassini mission, which made a dozen close flybys and more than a hundred other visits to Titan. But those visits only gave us the big picture. To really understand a place, you've got to get up close and personal.

Back in 2005, Cassini did drop the European-built Huygens lander, and it returned our very first images of the moon's surface. But Huygens lasted only a few hours, a far cry from the 2.7 years Dragonfly is expected to operate. In that time, the craft will make a series of “hops” up to 8 kilometers that are designed to take its scientific instruments from one point of interest to another.

It'll do this using four pairs of meter-long rotors, which will help it travel at speeds up to 36 kilometers per hour and reach altitudes of several kilometers. That's pretty impressive, considering this thing's mass will be more than 400 kilograms, or about as much as a horse. But it's all possible because Titan's unique combination of a thick atmosphere and low gravity makes flying incredibly efficient.

In fact, over the course of the mission, the drone is expected to fly over 175 kilometers, nearly double the distance traveled by every Mars rover combined. Once Dragonfly lands, it will start exploring in the Shangri-La dune field near Titan's equator, where Cassini data indicate the presence of dunes similar to those found in Namibia. Because dunes are big things made out of very small particles, they're incredibly important for understanding how both large- and small-scale processes affect a world.

Cassini, for example, found that Titan's dunes seem to point against the direction of the wind, which is totally opposite of how they work here on Earth. That could be because of the occasional gust of wind blowing in the opposite direction. But one way or another, Dragonfly will help scientists figure it out.

After visiting the dunes, the mission will make a few more stops but will eventually work its way to the Selk impact crater, where water and even the kinds of organic molecules needed for life may have once existed. In fact, some scientists believe that Titan today might be a little like how Earth was when life first arose billions of years ago. We don't have any evidence for life yet, but all the ingredients are there.

To teach us more about all of this,. Dragonfly will carry two spectrometers for determining the chemical composition of its environment, a suite of sensors designed to make it a mobile weather station, and, of course, a set of cameras. Dragonfly joins New Horizons, Juno, and OSIRIS-REx as the fourth mission in NASA's New Frontiers series.

These other medium-sized missions have taught us an incredible amount about our solar system, so it's likely that Dragonfly will, too. But I have some bad news. We're gonna have to wait awhile.

The mission is expected to launch in 2026, but won't make it to Titan until 2034. That puts it on the surface in a season when the weather should be nice and mild, but there's no denying that that's a long time from now. But, these next fifteen years won't be boring.

Now that NASA has a target selected, researchers will carry out new laboratory simulations and reexamine old Cassini data. And with any luck, they'll discover a bunch of awesome new things for Dragonfly to check out! Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Space News.

And a special huge thank you to Matthew Brant, our President of Space! Because of people like Matthew and all of our Patreon Patrons we will hopefully still be here in 15 years to tell you all about Dragonfly when it gets to Titan. If you want to learn more about supporting SciShow, you can go to [ ♪ Outro ].