NASA's next mission will search for signs of life on Titan, Saturn's ice moon

NASA's next mission: Fly a large drone across the surface of the mysterious ocean world to search for the building blocks of life.

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The Dragonfly drone will be able to take off and land across the surface of Titan


We're going to Titan, and we're going in style. NASA announced on Thursday its next great solar system exploration mission. "Dragonfly" involves an ambitious plan to send a rotorcraft -- essentially a large drone -- to moon, Titan. The flying vehicle will be designed to touch down in multiple locations, from dunes to the floor of an impact crater carrying out science missions to look for the building blocks of life.

Titan is an icy land of wonder and intrigue, home to massive methane lakes and mysterious disappearing islands. It's the second largest moon in the solar system. NASA calls it an analogue to the very early Earth and at least one NASA engineer has suggested we look to Titan for a future human colony.

"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," said NASA's Thomas Zurbuchen.

Dragonfly will aim for a 2.7-year initial mission, with dozens of landing sites on the menu. "Dragonfly marks the first time NASA will fly a multirotor vehicle for science on another planet; it has eight rotors and flies like a large drone," NASA said.

NASA engineers are gearing up Dragonfly to cover more than 108 miles (around 175 kilometers) of Titan's surface. That would make it one of the most accomplished interplanetary robots, nearly doubling the distance which all of the Mars rovers (combined!) have traveled to date.

The Titan mission is made possible in part by NASA's dearly departed Cassini spacecraft, which studied Titan while it was investigating Saturn. Cassini helped NASA scientists delve into potential Titan landing sites.

NASA plans to launch Dragonfly in 2026, which would put it on track to arrive at Titan in 2034. The mission is part of the agency's New Frontiers program, which includes the New Horizons mission to Pluto (and beyond) and the Juno mission to Jupiter.

The program originally selected two finalists for the next New Horizons mission in December 2017. The unlucky second finalist was the Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return (Caesar) mission, which aimed to send a spacecraft to the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko and return a sample to Earth.

The comet was the destination of the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft, which rendezvoused with the space rock in 2014. It even landed a smaller spacecraft, Philae, on the surface, providing us with some stunning images.

Titan is a worthy target because it is really strange but its atmosphere and environment contains molecules that could have kick-started life as we know it. That doesn't mean we will find a race of purple Titans on the icy moon -- and certainly not any particularly mad ones, either -- but it may tell us a thing or two about how life starts.

"Visiting this mysterious ocean world could revolutionize what we know about life in the universe," said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine.

See Saturn's secrets through NASA Cassini's finest views

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Originally published June 27, 3:08 p.m. PT.

Update, 7:13 p.m.: Adds more context about New Horizons mission.