In search for alien life, NASA to send ‘Dragonfly’ drone to Titan

The flying rotorcraft drone is set to land on Saturn's largest moon in 2034.

  • The Dragonfly rotorcraft will collect samples of the moon's surface, take photos, measure possible titanquakes, and search for signs of microbial life.
  • It would be the second time NASA has landed a spacecraft on Titan.
  • The mission is part of NASA's Frontiers programs, in which teams compete for funding for ambitious space missions.

NASA plans to send a flying drone to Saturn's moon Titan to search for signs of life and study other aspects of the remarkably Earth-like world. The rotorcraft is set to land on Titan — a moon that's 10 times farther from the sun as Earth is, and bigger than the planet Mercury — in 2034.

"Titan is unlike any other place in the solar system, and Dragonfly is like no other mission," said NASA associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen. "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."

Dragonfly will land on a stretch of soft dunes which Elizabeth Turtle, the lead investigator of the mission, described as "the largest Zen gardens in the Solar System wrapped around almost the entire equatorial region." After landing, the Mars rover-sized craft will spend about two-and-a-half years taking photos, collecting samples of the surface, using seismometers to detect possible titanquakes, and scouting out landing sites for future missions.

Titan is a unique world. It's the only other body in our solar system whose surface has standing liquid (methane instead of water). The moon's unusually thick and nitrogen-based atmosphere harbors conditions like those of early Earth, making it an ideal place to search for microbial life, and to study the conditions that precede it.

"Titan is just a perfect chemical laboratory to understand prebiotic chemistry — the chemistry that occurred before chemistry took the step to biology," Turtle said. "Ingredients that we know are necessary for the development of life as we know it are sitting on the surface of Titan."

Dragonfly will spend most of its time on Titan's surface. But every 16 days, the drone-craft will fly autonomously to a new location. Flying will be unusual on Titan, where the gravity is about one-seventh of Earth's.

"If you put on wings, you'd be able to fly on Titan," Turtle said, adding that cameras aboard the craft will let NASA simultaneously take photos both of what's under and ahead of the rotorcraft.



It won't be the first time a spacecraft has visited Saturn's largest moon. In 2005, NASA's Cassini orbiter carried the Huygens probe to Titan, depositing it on what appeared to be a dry lakebed. The probe then snapped the first photo of the moon's surface — and also the first photo containing what scientists believe to be a drop of liquid seen on an extraterrestrial surface. NASA hopes its new mission will yield even greater discoveries.


Another world: First image of Titan's surface.

"With the Dragonfly mission, NASA will once again do what no one else can do," said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. "Visiting this mysterious ocean world could revolutionize what we know about life in the universe. This cutting-edge mission would have been unthinkable even just a few years ago, but we're now ready for Dragonfly's amazing flight."

The Dragonfly mission is part of NASA's New Frontiers program, in which teams compete for funding for projects designed to explore our Solar System. As The New York Times notes, other Frontiers missions have included the "New Horizons spacecraft, which visited Pluto; Juno, which now orbits Jupiter; and Osiris-rex, which will soon collect a sample from the asteroid Bennu and return it to Earth."

Stand up against religious discrimination – even if it’s not your religion

As religious diversity increases in the United States, we must learn to channel religious identity into interfaith cooperation.

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Religious diversity is the norm in American life, and that diversity is only increasing, says Eboo Patel.
  • Using the most painful moment of his life as a lesson, Eboo Patel explains why it's crucial to be positive and proactive about engaging religious identity towards interfaith cooperation.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
Keep reading Show less

Moon landing astronauts reveal they possibly infected Earth with space germs

Two Apollo 11 astronauts question NASA's planetary safety procedures.

Credit: Bettmann, Getty Images.
Surprising Science
  • Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins revealed that there were deficiencies in NASA's safety procedures following the Apollo 11 mission.
  • Moon landing astronauts were quarantined for 21 days.
  • Earth could be contaminated with lunar bacteria.
Keep reading Show less

NASA's idea for making food from thin air just became a reality — it could feed billions

Here's why you might eat greenhouse gases in the future.

Jordane Mathieu on Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • The company's protein powder, "Solein," is similar in form and taste to wheat flour.
  • Based on a concept developed by NASA, the product has wide potential as a carbon-neutral source of protein.
  • The man-made "meat" industry just got even more interesting.
Keep reading Show less

Where the evidence of fake news is really hiding

When it comes to sniffing out whether a source is credible or not, even journalists can sometimes take the wrong approach.

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • We all think that we're competent consumers of news media, but the research shows that even journalists struggle with identifying fact from fiction.
  • When judging whether a piece of media is true or not, most of us focus too much on the source itself. Knowledge has a context, and it's important to look at that context when trying to validate a source.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
Keep reading Show less