NASA’s New Mission Headed to Saturn

As the Verge explained, “a new mission involving a drone-like lander will explore the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan. The mission — called Dragonfly — received a coveted funding slot from NASA’s New Frontiers program, which funds ambitious missions to explore objects in our solar system.” Titan is the only moon in our solar system that has an atmosphere and conditions that are most like Earth’s.

Dragonfly’s Mission: NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement. “Titan is most comparable to early Earth. Dragonfly’s instruments will help evaluate organic chemistry and the chemical signatures of past or present life. We will launch Dragonfly to explore the frontiers of human knowledge for the benefit of all humanity.” As CNN explained, “the ultimate goal is for Dragonfly to visit an impact crater, where they believe that important ingredients for life mixed together when something hit Titan in the past, possibly tens of thousands of years ago.

One of Only a Few: The Verge noted that, “only three other missions have been funded through the New Frontiers program. The Juno spacecraft, in orbit around Jupiter, has been observing the giant planet’s roiling atmosphere and magnetic field. New Horizons wooshed by Pluto in 2015, and flew by a Kuiper Belt object in December of 2018. And OSIRIS-REx, an asteroid-sampling mission, is currently in orbit around the asteroid Bennu, looking for a safe place to grab a sample next year.”

Why This Matters: While Titan may not be home to the aliens of Hollywood, in 2017 researchers confirmed the presence of a building block substance that may lead to life on Titan. The moon has extreme conditions not making it possible for humans to explore but crafts will be able to venture past its thick atmosphere to perhaps answer questions about what life there could look like. Additionally, Titan’s conditions mirror that of primordial Earth so it could give scientists insights into our own history as well. But don’t expect news from Dragonfly to come anytime soon as the craft will launch in 2026, but won’t actually reach Titan until 2034.

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