A nuclear dragonfly may one day explore the land of electric sand dunes. No, this isn’t the beginning of a poetic epic or a science fiction novel – researchers at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (JHAPL) genuinely want to send a futuristic, flying robot to Saturn’s moon Titan, and NASA is seriously considering it.
First, a little context. NASA has a program named New Frontiers, which looks to send spacecraft to various planets, moons, comets, and asteroids in our Solar System. Every now and then, they open up the initiative to researchers outside of the venerable space agency, and if a particular spacecraft design or exploratory proposal is particularly good, they may just use it.
The categories this time around included a hypothetical mission to an ocean world, which includes the muddy, methane-laden Titan and the ice-capped soggy sphere of Enceladus, another Saturnian satellite.
To wit, the plucky team over at JHAPL decided that they were quite keen on taking a look at the former, and spent some time coming up with some rather fabulous concept art and schematics for a decidedly unique robot.
Named the Dragonfly, it’s a rotorcraft – essentially a drone with multiple propellers – and it’s powered by a tiny radioactive fuel source, not unlike the sort that even now is still working on Voyager 1 almost four decades after it launched into space.
The surface of Titan is thought to be a mixture of hydrocarbon muds, seas, and sands with highly charged surfaces. This makes exploring it on wheels – a la Curiosity on Mars – a bit of a hard sell.
A flying robot makes a lot more sense, and because the moon’s gravitational field strength is far weaker than Earth’s, and its atmosphere far denser, it makes flying through the air a lot easier than it is back home.
The Dragonfly would be adorned with all kinds of scientific instrumentation – Titan’s surface and sub-surface geochemistry, hydrochemistry, and atmospheric composition could all be analyzed, as expected. Any weather patterns, seismic activity or even cryovolcanic phenomena would be observed either from the air or at the surface.
Titan’s also an excellent candidate for off-world life. The Dragonfly’s primary mission, then, would be to search for signs of it – or even just its chemical predecessors.
“Mixing of rich, organic molecules and liquid water on the surface of Titan could have persisted over very long timescales,” JHAPL’s Elizabeth Turtle, principal investigator for the Dragonfly mission, said in a statement. “Dragonfly is designed to study the results of Titan’s experiments in prebiotic chemistry.”
At this point, this is just a concept – but it’s hard to deny that it’s as cool as it is unique. Will the higher-ups NASA decide it’s worth their investment?