Washington: The National Aeronautics and Space Administration(NASA) selected the next mission in its New Frontiers program on Thursday- a drone that will fly on Saturn’s moon Titan. Dragonfly will aim to investigate the distant world’s strange geology—a previous probe glimpsed rivers of liquid methane flowing on the surface—and to search for signs of alien life.
Using propellers, the drone will fly and land on several spots on the icy moon to study whether it can support microbial life.
The nuclear-powered mission is part of NASA’s competitive New Frontiers program, which launched the New Horizons spacecraft that became the first to visit dwarf planet Pluto.
Dragonfly beat out nearly a dozen proposed projects, including a mission to collect samples from a nearby comet.
The drone is slated to launch in 2026 and arrive at Titan in 2034. The plan is to land on some of Titan’s dunes and later on a crater. Development costs for the mission are capped at around USD 850 million.
Titan is a haze-covered world with a thick atmosphere.
The moon has lakes of methane, mountains of ice and an ocean below the surface, making it an attractive place to explore whether its environment can support primitive life.
Titan was last studied by the international Cassini-Huygens mission.
In 2017, the Cassini spacecraft plunged into Saturn, ending two decades of exploration.
Earlier, The Trump administration had “quietly killed” $10-million per year NASA program that tracked carbon and methane, key greenhouse gases that contributed to global warming, the journal Science had said.
In recent years, though, satellite and aircraft instruments have begun monitoring carbon dioxide and methane remotely, and NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System (CMS), a $10-million-a-year research line, has helped stitch together observations of sources and sinks into high-resolution models of the planet’s flows of carbon. Now, President Donald Trump’s administration had quietly killed the CMS.