NASA will be sending Dragonfly – a drone run by nuclear power – to Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. The aeronautics agency says that the dual quadcopter will traverse various locations as it searches for signs of microbial life. Titan (one of Saturn’s 53 confirmed moons) currently hosts conditions that are similar to Earth around four billion years ago. If the Dragonfly achieves its objectives, it could aid in the understanding of how life developed, which could also help when it comes to searching for life in other areas of the universe.
Titan’s landscape is primarily populated with sand dunes and waterways which are made of hydrocarbons. Frozen solid water ice formulates on the surface, but below this is a hidden liquid-water reservoir that could be a similar temperature to the Pacific Ocean shallows according to astrophysicists.
Experts have had a high interest in this moon for some time, as Titan’s organic chemistry is made up of intricate molecules that could quite possibly be a foundation for alien biology. The late Carl Sagan wrote, “The molecules that have been raining down like manna from heaven for the last four billion years might still be there, largely unaltered, deep-frozen, awaiting the chemists from Earth.”
Planetary scientist Elizabeth Turtle of Johns Hopkins University says that there is not much certitude around the type of biological concoctions that the drone might encounter. “We know Titan has all of the ingredients necessary for life. How far does chemistry get in an environment that has all of the ingredients sitting there?” commented Turtle in the Scientific American. “Titan has been doing chemistry experiments for hundreds of millions – if not billions – of years, and what we want to do is go pick up the results of those experiments.”
Much like NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover, the Dragonfly drone will be nuclear powered, with a radioisotope thermoelectric generator instead of being powered by the sun. The sun’s rays aren’t strong enough to reach Saturn to effectively power a solar-based drone. Titan’s atmosphere is also too thick for sufficient light to make it through.