Big news for space enthusiasts this week: NASA recently announced that it would be sending a specialized rotocraft to one of Saturn’s moons, Titan. The goal of the NASA Dragonfly mission? To search not just for signs of life there, but also to scope out clues for the origins of life. It’s all part of NASA’s New Frontiers program to explore and learn about our solar system.
Titan is a fair bit away from Earth. For context, Earth is about about 93 million miles from the Sun and Titan roughly 886,696,691 miles away. The surface of Titan is also much, much colder than that of our own blue planet, reaching roughly -290 degrees Fahrenheit.
So, why would NASA explore for signs of life and clues about our own origins so far from our home on a frigid moon? Well, Titan is full of all the ingredients necessary to create life. Specifically, scientists have collected evidence that there are organics, liquid water, and energy on this icy planetary body.
So while there’s no confirmation that there’s life on Titan, the building blocks are there, making it ripe for explanation. In fact, besides our own lovely Earth, Titan is the only other place in our solar system (that we know of) with lakes, rivers, and other such bodies of water.
What Will Happen During the Dragonfly Mission?
So, just what happens during this Titan mission? After landing, the craft will start exploring the surrounding area, making observations and taking samples. The craft will then “hop” along to its final destination, a crater, taking samples along the way.
When Will the Dragonfly Mission Happen?
The anticipated launch date is set for 2026. We’ll have to hold tight for a little bit after, though: the craft isn’t expected to arrive on the surface of Titan until 2034.
What is the New Frontiers Program?
The New Frontiers program is all about exploring our solar system. Besides the Dragonfly mission to Titan, this program also involves the Juno mission to Jupiter, the New Horizons missions to both Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, and the OSIRIS-REx mission to Bennu, an asteroid.
Jupiter is by far the largest planet in our solar system. According to NASA, the radius of this planet is 43,441 miles across. For comparison, Earth’s is only about 4,000! Scientists think that Jupiter may well have been the first planet to form in our solar system. What better place to go looking for clues about the beginnings of our solar system?
Why Pluto and the Kuiper Belt?
Pluto was by far the smallest planet in our system; so small, in fact, that it was demoted to dwarf planet status in 2006. (But just because it has a radius of less than 740 miles doesn’t mean it’s any less near and dear to our hearts.) Both Pluto and the Kuiper Belt rest at the edges of our solar system, and the Kuiper Belt itself is believed to be a remnant of our solar system’s formation. Exploring the ancient outskirts of our solar system fits right in with the aim of the New Frontiers mission.
Like the other New Frontiers targets, Bennu could possibly provide clues about the origins of life in our little corner of the universe. NASA has also said that studying this asteroid could be helpful in analyzing other asteroids in the future and how they might impact our own planet.
A Journey to Discover More about Ourselves
With the upcoming NASA Dragonfly mission and those already underway, our understanding of our solar system—and about ourselves—is about to expand.