Dragonfly on the surface of Titan. ©NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben

Dec 7, 2023

Dragonfly - NASA's most ambitious robot explorer?

Since the end of the Apollo program, NASA has been no stranger to sending robotic explorers to planets and moons to perform science instead of crews. Today, the agency is looking into potentially its most ambitious robot explorer to date.

The Dragonfly spacecraft is NASA's planned robotic explorer of Saturn's largest moon, Titan. Currently, the mission is planned to launch in July 2028 with a landing on Titan in 2034.

As of the 28th of November 2023, the Dragonfly mission has been authorized to proceed with work on final mission design and fabrication during fiscal year 2024. However, NASA has postponed formal confirmation of the mission until mid-2024, this includes its total cost and schedule.

Dragonfly team members during the mission preliminary design review with a render of the spacecraft above. ©NASA/Johns Hopkins APL
Dragonfly team members during the mission preliminary design review with a render of the spacecraft above. ©NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

On the surface of Titan, Dragonfly will weigh approximately 450 kilograms and will be roughly the size of a car. The spacecraft will be powered by a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, which is already in use with the Curiosity and Perseverance Mars rovers, as Titan's atmosphere is too hazy for solar panels to be effective for power generation.

For flight, Dragonfly is looking to have eight rotors, each a meter in diameter, to allow it to fly at speeds up to twenty-two miles per hour at a maximum altitude of four kilometers. Atmospheric flight is possible on Titan due to its low gravity and dense atmosphere. This would be NASA's second spacecraft capable of atmospheric flight on another celestial body, the first being Ingenuity on Mars.

Dragonfly officially has four scientific instruments planned to be flown on the spacecraft, they are the following. DraGNS, full name Dragonfly Gamma-Ray and Neutron Spectrometer, which allows the spacecraft to see beneath the surface and determine the elemental composition of the ground without the requirement of sampling. DraGMet, full name Dragonfly Geophysics and Meteorology Package, is an instrument consisting of a suite of meteorological sensors and a seismometer. The DraGMet instrument allows teams back on Earth to understand Titan's weather and tectonic activity. DraMS, full name Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer, allows the spacecraft to identify chemical components in samples collected from the surface and atmosphere. DragonCam, Dragonfly Camera Suite, consists of panoramic and microscopic cameras to scout for scientifically interesting sites and to image the terrain. Dragonfly will also be equipped with engineering sensors and monitoring instruments to monitor the spacecraft's health but can also be used to determine characteristics of Titan's atmosphere.

Why go to Titan?

NASA image of Titan. ©NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI
NASA image of Titan. ©NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Titan is the largest of Saturn which NASA considers a high priority for exploration within our solar system. Titan is believed to be an ocean world that supports an 'Earth-like' weather cycle of methane clouds, rain, and liquids on the surface.

Titan has already been visited by three spacecraft; Voyager 1, Voyager 2, and Cassini-Huygens. The Voyager spacecraft pair observed Titan in 1979 and 1980 in the visible light wavelengths which obscured the surface below. Cassini-Huygens revealed in 2004 that the moon has rivers and lakes on the surface below. The Cassini-Huygens spacecraft also released the Huygens probe from the Cassini orbiter to the surface of Titan which measured the moon's atmosphere and winds as well as imaging a small area around the probe on the surface.