Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, recently submitted a proposal to NASA called Dragonfly.
“Dragonfly proposes to send a nuclear quadcopter to look for life on Saturn’s moon, Titan. Seems kind of straightforward,” says Peter Bedini in the mission’s video presentation.
Why Titan, you ask? Titan is the largest of Saturn’s moon, with a liquid cycle similar to Earth, replacing water with methane. Even though the Cassini mission has documented Titan’s rich atmosphere, there is a lot that is still unknown, including the composition of the surface.
To support Dragonfly’s search for habitable locations and chemical signatures of water and/or hydrocarbon-based life, a high-tech payload will join the cause. First up is a mass spectrometer, which would uncover the composition of the surface and atmosphere. Similarly, a neutron activated gamma-ray spectrometer will take record of the sub-surface composition.
Meteorology and geophysics sensors will measure atmospheric data (such as wind, temperature, pressure, etc.) and seismic activity. Finally, a camera suite will collect information of the moon’s surface and scout for new landing sites.
Instead of sending just a single lander to collect data from a strategic location, Dragonfly increases its value by adding aerial mobility, enlisting the technological prowess of autonomous aerial systems. Taking to the sky allows for greater access, quicker navigation, and efficient travel.
“In a few hops, Dragonfly can travel as much as the Opportunity rover has in more than 12 years on Mars,” says Bedini.
According to Bedini, due to Titan’s dense atmosphere, it’s ideal for heavier-than-air flight. Quadcopters will have an easier time zipping around Titan than its Earth-bound counterparts.
To give the aircraft power, a nuclear power source (MMRTG) will be used, supplied by NASA. The source of power will also help during the mission’s transit to the target, “By harboring the electronics inside the vessel warmed by the MMRTG waste heat, they operate at room temperature.”
Later this year, NASA will choose a few proposals for the New Frontiers mission to develop further, with only one making it to realization. The final decision is expected to occur sometime in 2019.
You can watch the proposal’s full video presentation below.
Filed Under: Aerospace + defense