HomeOutdoorsNewsNASA Drone Could Find Clues to Life’s Origin on Titan, Saturn’s Moon

NASA Drone Could Find Clues to Life’s Origin on Titan, Saturn’s Moon

by Caitlin Berard
NASA Probe Approaching Saturn's Moon, Titan
(Photo by Space Frontiers/Space Frontiers/Getty Images)

How did life develop in the universe? Is Earth alone in its habitability? NASA hopes to take a step toward answering questions such as these by sending a drone to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.

The highly-anticipated mission, known as Dragonfly, is scheduled to launch in 2027. When the drone finally arrives on Titan in the mid-2030s, it will carefully assess the giant moon’s atmosphere, taking samples of the air and imaging the landscape.

In addition to the undoubtedly fascinating samples, the mission will also carry an instrument called the Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer (DraMS) to assist in the “journey of discovery that could bring about a new understanding of the development of life in the universe,” NASA said in a statement.

Though it sounds like something straight out of Back to the Future, it’s a very real instrument designed to help NASA scientists understand the chemistry at work on Saturn’s moon.

In other words, it will help astrobiologists search for the chemistry of life on Titan. If Titan has the same chemical makeup on its surface as Earth did in its earliest days, it could help scientists better understand the chemistry that gave rise to life on Earth.

With the combination of low gravity and dense atmosphere on Saturn’s moon, NASA hopes that the robotic rotorcraft will be able to hop across the surface (similar to the motion of a dragonfly). In doing so, it can scan multiple interesting sites as far as several miles apart.

NASA’s Mission to Saturn’s Moon Will Use Similar Techniques to Those on Mars

When it reaches each site, the Dragonfly drone will drill into the surface and remove samples less than a gram in size. It will then deposit in the lander in a place called the “attic” that houses the DraMS instrument.

With the samples on board, the lander will “irradiate [them] by an onboard laser or vaporize [them] in an oven” for study, NASA explained. The mass spectrometer will analyze the individual samples in search of organic molecules (those containing carbon), those shared by all known living organisms.

Those familiar with recent NASA missions will recognize this collection strategy on Saturn’s moon. It’s extremely similar to the Perseverance rover’s current mission on Mars. “This design has given us an instrument that’s very flexible, that can adapt to the different types of surface samples,” said Dr. Melissa Trainer of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Dragonfly marks the fourth mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program managed by the Marshall Space Flight Center. The NASA drone will land in an equatorial, dry region of Saturn’s moon called the Shangri-La dune field.

The area rests near a 50-mile-wide crater called Selk. Images from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft during its mission to Saturn between 2004 and 2017 showed a terrain of dunes and shattered, icy bedrock.