NASA’s Dragonfly mission, which uses a drone to search for signs of life on Saturn’s moon, Tit, has been postponed to 2027. According to the space agency, the decision was “based on factors external to the project team, including the impact of Covid-19 in the budget of the Planetria Science Division “.
The launch was originally scheduled for 2026, expected to arrive in 2034. “No change will be necessary in the mission architecture to accommodate this new date, and the launch at a later date will not affect Dragonfly or its capabilities once it arrives in Tit “, completes NASA.
The drone / helicopter will be the first multi-rotor vehicle used by NASA for research on another planet. Taking advantage of Tit’s low gravity and dense atmosphere (four times denser than Earth’s), Dragonfly will also be the first vehicle to fly with its full load of instruments to multiple locations – and may even return to them later.
Tit, so far, is the only other celestial body in the Solar System that has liquid on its surface. However, instead of just water, this moon is covered by rivers and lakes of methane and ethane – a characteristic noted by the Huygens probe, also from NASA, which was over 20 years ago.
“What we don’t know is the exact composition of the ocean, its density, its thermal profile, the general structure of the icy crust on top of it,” says Mike Malaska, a project researcher at the Jet Propulsion Lab.
The Dragonfly is a double quadcopter that takes advantage of the environment on Tit to fly to several locations, a few hundred kilometers away, to collect material samples and determine the surface composition. Image: Nasa / Disclosure
The Dragonfly mission has four main objectives. The first two are to analyze how molecules are transported from Tit’s surface to their oceans and find out if complex organic compounds are able to survive in the vast oceans beneath the surfaces. The two seconds depend on the results of the first, and just explore how much chemical energy is available and can be metabolized by living organisms and detect the bio-signatures that may have been left in the ocean.
The surface temperature in Tit is always -292C, with a variation of only 1 or 2 degrees up or down. The atmosphere is so thick that very few rays of light reach the floor. But even so, this moon remains one of the best candidates for harboring extraterrestrial life in the Solar System.
“Tit has all the main ingredients necessary for life,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division. In the atmosphere of the satellite, spacecraft have already detected carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, ethane and other elements on which life on Earth depends. They even found a compound that could interact with methane and ethane to create cell-like membranes.
For 2.7 years, the Dragonfly drone explored diverse environments, from organic dunes to the bottom of an impact crater, where liquid water and complex organic materials, essential for life, have coexisted for possibly tens of thousands of years.