A plan to send a quadcopter drone to Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, made national headlines when NASA selected the project to move forward last month.
The project would not have happened were it not for University of Idaho professor Jason Barnes.
Barnes said the idea was submitted to NASA’s New Frontiers program to be considered alongside several other potential missions, though only one would be selected. Late last month, NASA announced they had selected “Dragonfly,” as the mission was dubbed, for funding. There is a scheduled launch date in 2026.
Barnes said when his colleague, Ralph Lorenz with the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, first suggested a quadcopter drone would be a good way to navigate Titan’s unknowable terrain, he was laughed at. The two pushed forward anyway, teamed up with the Applied Physics Laboratory, and landed the funding.
“They had the head NASA administrator, a political appointee, talking about the science goals that I wrote — that’s so weird,” Barnes said. “That’s just something that we were sitting down writing on the back of a napkin three years ago and now we have the full backing of NASA.”
Barnes said when he was considering strategies for a lander-style mission to study the alien moon, he found giving the craft drone-like flight capabilities would offer a host of advantages. In addition to allowing the lander to sample and study a diverse array of sites, it would also afford researchers more liberty to select specific sites for scrutiny.
About 9 feet long and 6 feet high and weighing nearly half a ton, the lander itself should be a sight to behold. Barnes described Dragonfly as a large, roving laboratory searching for signs of carbon compounds that could precede the kinds of complex biological chemistries found on Earth.
He said the intricate organic chemistry found on Titan, coupled with possible liquid water on its surface, make it a strong candidate to host extraterrestrial life. At the very least, he said, it could give insight into conditions of an early Earth that made its own complex biological chemistries possible.
“We don’t have a time machine, we can’t go back on Earth, unfortunately, (to) see how life formed here,” Barnes said. “But we do have this planetary laboratory of Titan out in space where we think that some semblance of the same processes may have occurred and we just need to go out and collect the results.”
Though the project won’t even launch for another five years and is not expected to touch down on Titan’s surface until 2034, Barnes said there is still much work to be done. He said in the years running up to launch, teams will continue to refine the design and engineering of Dragonfly.
He said while there will be an eight-year period of relatively little activity related to the project, he said he will have other science he can work on during that time and the team directing the project will continue to meet annually. The first glimpses of Titan’s surface should be available to the public in December 2034, he said.
“There’s a lot of work between now and launch in 2026, and then after launch … yeah, then we fly through space for eight-and-a-half years and there’s really not much to be done,” Barnes said. “The year before arrival, we will start to throttle up, we’ll start to have a lot of team meetings, we’ll start to do mock arrival drills and planning, practice so that we’re ready and we can hit the ground running — or at least flying — when we arrive in 2034.”
Scott Jackson can be reached at (208) 883-4636, or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.