NASA Dragonfly Mission to Saturn’s Largest Moon a ‘Go’

NASA’s nuclear-powered, dual-quadcopter rotorcraft is expected to travel tens of miles in an hour, much farther than any existing rover.

NASA Dragonfly Saturn moon Titan

An artist’s concept depicts NASA’s Dragonfly rotorcraft soaring over Titan’s sandy dunes. [Courtesy: NASA]

Within five years, NASA will launch a nuclear-powered drone to Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, to search for the origins of life.

The space agency this week confirmed its Dragonfly rotorcraft mission to Titan, the fourth initiative under its New Frontiers program, is a “go” for 2028. According to NASA, teams can now begin finalizing the mission’s design. After that, they will begin construction and testing of the spacecraft and science instruments it will carry.

The aim of Dragonfly is to explore “promising locations” on Titan in search of prebiotic chemical processes—those that took place before life formed and may have contributed to its inception—that are common to both Titan and ancient Earth. In other words, the mission could help NASA uncover how life in the solar system came to be.

“Dragonfly is a spectacular science mission with broad community interest, and we are excited to take the next steps on this mission,” said Nicky Fox, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. “Exploring Titan will push the boundaries of what we can do with rotorcraft outside of Earth.”

After a revised mission budget and schedule were conditionally approved in November 2023, the release of NASA’s fiscal year 2025 budget request confirmed that Dragonfly will cost $3.35 billion and launch in July 2028. That cost is about triple what was initially proposed in 2019, and the launch date two years later.

NASA attributed the rising costs to multiple revisions of the mission in 2020 and 2022, when agency funding was curtailed. For example, it had to allocate additional funding toward a new heavy-lift launch vehicle—intended to shorten the transit time between Earth and Titan—due to the delayed launch. The COVID-19 pandemic and supply chain snarls were also cited as factors.

Dragonfly is a dual-quadcopter with eight rotors that flies like a drone, albeit one about the size of a car. It is expected to arrive on Titan in 2034, where, over the course of a two-year expedition, it will investigate whether the moon could be habitable.

As one of the solar system’s few ocean worlds, researchers believe Titan could harbor water- or hydrocarbon-based life. Its thick, hazy atmosphere—unique among moons in the solar system—resembles that of Earth and has allowed complex organic materials to form on its surface.

Unlike Earth’s moon, which can accommodate solar-powered vehicles, Titan’s dense atmosphere necessitates a different energy source. Dragonfly will use a space nuclear power system, similar to those powering NASA’s Curiosity rover and New Horizons probe, that can be recharged at night. Most activities will be performed during the daytime, which on Titan lasts eight Earth days.

Titan is expected to have a greater range capability than any existing rover, covering tens of miles within an hour. According to NASA, it will fly hundreds of miles over two years, making one “hop” per Titan day (equivalent to 16 Earth days). However, Dragonfly will spend much of its time on the moon’s surface, making measurements and collecting samples.

The mission would represent the first time NASA has flown a vehicle for science on another planet’s moon. In 2022, the agency’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter completed several firsts and record-breaking flights on the Red Planet, earning the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab a Robert J. Collier trophy. Ingenuity earlier this week was officially retired into a stationary testbed following its final flight in January.

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Jack is a staff writer covering advanced air mobility, including everything from drones to unmanned aircraft systems to space travel—and a whole lot more. He spent close to two years reporting on drone delivery for FreightWaves, covering the biggest news and developments in the space and connecting with industry executives and experts. Jack is also a basketball aficionado, a frequent traveler and a lover of all things logistics.

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