On January 14, 2005, human beings successfully accomplished an significant feat unsurpassed to date. The European room Agency’s (ESA) Huygens probe, a steel pie-plate looking maker 1.3 metres in diameter, parachuted under onto Titan, the largest of Saturn’s moons, and also landed unscathed on its surface. For 90 minutes, Huygens transmitted a wide range of data native the satellite, including images from the remote spot. Huygens’ achievement remains the furthest soil on i beg your pardon a human-made probe has actually landed. But a return to Titan is currently on the horizon. 2026 will see the beginning of NASA’s Dragonfly mission, tasked v the challenge of delivering a drone capable of combing the distant people in find of the answer come an intriguing question: might there be life on Titan?

Titan is one of the Solar System’s best candidates because that hosting extra-terrestrial microbial life, together it is the just moon with a thick atmosphere —composed mostly of nitrogen— and with liquid lakes on its surface, consisted of of hydrocarbons such together methane and ethane. However, water is also very present, in ~ ground level only in the kind of ice, but generally in an underground fluid ocean. If life through a various chemistry than on earth is possible, Titan could be the ar to find microorganisms based upon methane rather of water, whose presence is still just hypothetical.

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Photograph that the Saturn moon Titan in False Color, take away by the Cassini space probe with ultraviolet and also infrared camera.Credit: NASA / JPL / space Science Institute

Interest in trying out the Saturn system much more deeply led NASA, ESA and also the Italian space Agency to collaborate top top the style of the Cassini-Huygens mission, launched in 1997 and also consisting of the Cassini orbiter and also the Huygens landing probe. Cassini entered Saturn’s orbit in 2004 and also studied the ringed planet and its moons because that 13 years. Top top December 25, 2004, Cassini exit Huygens in the very first attempt by human beings to land an tool on the surface ar of an outer Solar mechanism world.

Huygens to be designed come land on heavy ground and to float, due to the fact that it to be not well-known whether it would find anything solid on the surface. ~ a two-and-a-half-hour descent through the atmosphere, and also with the aid of three parachutes, the probe came down on a ground having the consistency that soft, wet sand, lived in by boulders of frozen water. The scientific tools revealed the problems on Titan’s surface: a temperature the -170°C, an atmospheric press somewhat greater than that of the Earth, light winds and the presence of carbon dioxide and also organic compounds.

The mission to be a success, back a partial fail in the interaction system with its orbiting link, Cassini, caused the ns of half of the photos take away by the probe. Regardless of this glitch, the 350 images that were able to it is in recovered were a sweetheart trove that confirmed the researcher an orange civilization enveloped in a special fog, with obvious traces of liquid erosion.

Valuable ideas to return

The data native Cassini and Huygens have actually not only aided scientists to understand in greater detail what is, because that the team on the brand-new Dragonfly mission, “in countless ways the many Earth-like human body in the solar system,” but have also listed valuable clues because that the architecture of this return to Titan. “Huygens gave us direct measurements the the atmospheric problems on Titan consisting of the winds, and Cassini data additionally tells us what Titan’s see is like,” planetary scientist Ralph Lorenz that the Johns Hopkins university (JHUAPL) applied Physics Laboratory, that was component of the Huygens scientific research team and also is now the architect the the Dragonfly mission, speak OpenMind.

What is more, as Elizabeth Zibi Turtle, likewise a planetary scientist in ~ JHUAPL and also the mission’s major investigator, described to OpenMind, “the timing of the start in 2026 means that Dragonfly will arrive at Titan in 2034, basically one Titan year ~ Huygens’ atmospheric descent and landing.” Thus, “the Huygens data provide us straight information about the atmosphere throughout the season when Dragonfly will certainly arrive at Titan,” she added.

Without doubt, the many novel and also striking element of the mission is the usage of a drone through four twin rotors, each around one metre in diameter, powered by a thermoelectric radioisotope generator —in essence, a atom battery. The device will be able to fly as much as a elevation of 4 kilometres and also at a speed of 36 km/h, i m sorry will allow it come cover in a solitary flight a distance greater than that covered by the Martian rovers in whole decade. The principle offers so countless possibilities the NASA will also apply it to its next Martian mission: Mars 2020. However, the Dragonfly drone will certainly be enormously an ext powerful and capable, given that Titan’s thick atmosphere, unlike the of Mars, is optimal for sustaining a large rotorcraft.

To understand prebiotic chemistry

According come Turtle, the mission concept has to be made possible by significant technological breakthroughs developed for land-based drones over the previous decade. “We haven’t had to invent brand-new technologies,” she says. But since this an equipment will be paris on another world, its design must be adjusted to the details conditions ~ above Titan. “Dragonfly’s design, like the shape of the rotors, is optimized because that the cold thick atmosphere there,” states Lorenz. With those cold temperatures, “we need to keep the auto electronics and also battery warmth with our main power source,” add to the researcher. Finally, because radio signal take more than one hour to with Titan indigenous Earth, it is not possible to operate the maker with a joystick; “the autopilot have to do that,” Lorenz says. “And there isn’t general practitioners or a magnetic field, for this reason Dragonfly have to use cameras to navigate.”

And all this, with a central purpose: “Dragonfly’s primary objective is to understand prebiotic chemistry,” summarizes Turtle. After a long stretch when astrobiology has actually not been a priority ~ above NASA missions, the firm has recently begun to increase its efforts to do this science an integral part of the future missions. Dragonfly is not designed to search for feasible microbes ~ above Titan today, yet with its 4 instruments that will be able to analyse whether problems are suitable for the breakthrough of life, as emerged in the so-called primordial soup of beforehand Earth.

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“While us wouldn’t mean life as we know it under Titan’s conditions, Dragonfly would have the ability to detect chemistry biosignatures to be chemistry to have taken the leap to biology on Titan in ~ some point in its past, either together a water-based mechanism or potentially something totally different choose a hydrocarbon-based system,” tortoise explains. We still don’t know if that leap has developed on an additional world in the Solar System, and it may never have actually happened. However we now have the tools to clear this mystery.