With drones taking over a multitude of tasks here on Earth, it was only a matter of time before we started sending them to other worlds. Now a team at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory has developed a concept mission called Dragonfly. The program proposes a radioisotope powered, dual-quadcopter that could embark upon multiple missions on Saturn's largest moon Titan.
The Dragonfly proposal is one of 12 being currently considered for further development to become the fourth mission launched under the New Frontiers program. This NASA program, which kicked off in 2002/03, encourages scientists to propose missions, from which NASA then funds into development.
The first New Frontiers mission was New Horizons, which excitingly achieved its primary goal of reaching Pluto in 2015. Juno, the Jupiter exploration mission, was the second project, and the third is called OSIRIS-REx, set to study an asteroid in 2018 and return a sample back to Earth by 2023.
Last year NASA opened up a competition for submissions for the fourth New Frontiers mission. Several categories for the mission were proposed including obtaining a sample of a comet and studying the surface of Venus.
The team from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory has focused on the broad mission category that proposed a study of Saturn's moons Enceladus and Titan. The low-gravity, and dense but calm atmosphere on Titan make it a perfect target for a flight-based exploratory mission.
"This is the kind of experiment we can't do in the laboratory because of the time scales involved," says Elizabeth Turtle, principal investigator for the Dragonfly mission. "Mixing of rich, organic molecules and liquid water on the surface of Titan could have persisted over very long timescales. Dragonfly is designed to study the results of Titan's experiments in prebiotic chemistry."
The thick atmosphere on Titan make solar power inefficient as a power source, so the Dragonfly will employ a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG) similar to that of the Curiosity rover on Mars. This will allow the quadcopter to embark upon hour-long flights during the day and then recharge itself at night.
The aerial mobility of Dragonfly would enormously increase the variety of samples and measurements that could be gathered. The proposal estimates that in a single hourlong flight the device could travel well over 10 or 20 kilometers (6 to 12 miles). This means across a two year mission the device could explore a significant breadth of Titan's surface. In one jump the Dragonfly could travel further than the Curiosity rover has traveled in four years.
With the recent acceleration of drone and quadcopter technology here on Earth, NASA has started to show interest in incorporating these devices into off-world projects. The Langley Research Center unveiled a prototype design earlier this year for a drone that could explore vast distances on Mars, while another drone-like device, called the Titan Aerial Daughtercraft, has been proposed for a Titan mission.
The Johns Hopkins Dragonfly proposal is another well-realized drone-exploration project to be put to the space organization. NASA are currently evaluating several mission proposals for the next New Frontiers project. By the end of 2017 it will announce further investment into concept studies for one or more of the submitted proposals, and the final mission will be decided upon by mid-2019 with a launch scheduled by 2025.
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