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Nasa launching life-hunting drone to Saturn’s moon Titan

Image credit: nasa

Nasa has announced plans to send a drone to Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, where it will search for “chemical evidence of past or extant life”.

The aircraft, dubbed Dragonfly, is golf-cart sized drone with four propellers and will embark on an eight-year mission in 2026 to Titan. It will be designed to fly to dozens of promising locations on Titan looking for prebiotic chemical processes common on both Titan and Earth.

Itmarks the first time Nasa will fly a multi-rotor vehicle for science by taking advantage of Titan’s dense atmosphere, which is four times denser than that of Earth’s.

It will fly its entire science payload to new places for repeatable and targeted access to surface materials.

Announcing the mission, Jim Bridenstine, Nasa administrator, said the space agency was “pushing the boundaries of human knowledge and expanding the limits of technology”.

He added: “Dragonfly will be the first drone lander with the capability to fly over 100 miles through Titan’s thick atmosphere. Titan is unlike any other place in our solar system and the most comparable to early Earth.”

“The instruments on board will help us investigate organic chemistry, evaluate habitability and search for chemical signatures of past or even present life. This revolutionary mission would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago.”

Dragonfly is the fourth solar system exploration mission selected under Nasa’s New Frontiers program, a series of missions including the New Horizons probe launched in 2006 to study Pluto and OSIRIS-REx, which launched in 2016 to study the rocky asteroid Bennu.

Nasa said that Titan is a “unique, richly organic world”, which could provide clues as to how life arose on Earth.

Larger than the planet Mercury, it is the second largest moon in the solar system, and is about 886 million miles away from the Sun. Its surface temperature is around -179°C , with a surface pressure 50 per cent higher than Earth’s. The moon has a nitrogen-based atmosphere like Earth, but unlike our planet also has clouds and rain of methane.

Dragonfly, which has eight rotors and flies like a large drone, will explore a range of environments on Titan.

Thomas Zurbuchen, Nasa’s associate administrator for science, said: “It’s remarkable to think of this rotorcraft flying miles and miles across the organic sand dunes of Saturn’s largest moon, exploring the processes that shape this extraordinary environment. Dragonfly will visit a world filled with a wide variety of organic compounds, which are the building blocks of life and could teach us about the origin of life itself.”

Nasa said Dragonfly will first land on Titan’s “Shangri-La” dune fields, similar to those in Namibia in southern Africa, making short flights around the region and collecting samples, before progressing to the Selk impact crater.

Earlier this month Nasa’s Curiosity rover discovered the largest amount of methane measured during its near seven-year mission, a potential sign of life after recent doubts about how much methane the planet really produces.

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