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By 2026, NASA plans to launch an advanced drone called Dragonfly to explore Titan to see if it could support life

Jeremy Rehm, July 5, 2019 3:30PM AP

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This drawing shows multiple views of the Dragonfly lander that would take advantage of the atmosphere on Saturn's moon Titan to explore multiple locations, some hundreds of kilometres apart. Picture: NASA via AP media_cameraThis drawing shows multiple views of the Dragonfly lander that would take advantage of the atmosphere on Saturn's moon Titan to explore multiple locations, some hundreds of kilometres apart. Picture: NASA via AP

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NASA is sending a dragonfly into space so we can look around Saturn’s largest moon to see if humans or some form of life could live there.

The US space agency has announced it has a team working hard on an incredibly advanced drone — called Dragonfly — to send to explore Titan.

Using propellers, the drone will fly and land on several spots on the icy moon to study whether it can support microbial* life.

An artist's illustration of hydrocarbon pools, icy and rocky terrain on the surface of Saturn's largest moon Titan. A vast ocean of water and ammonia may lurk deep beneath the surface of Titan, the intriguing, orange moon of Saturn already known for its blanket of clouds and dense atmosphere, scientists said on 20 Mar 2008. Astronomers have not directly observed this ocean. But they said observations made by the Cassini spacecraft of Titan's rotation and shifts in the location of surface features suggest an ocean exists perhaps 60 miles (100 km) under the surface. media_cameraAn artist’s illustration of what the surface of Saturn’s largest moon Titan could look like.

The nuclear-powered mission is part of NASA’s competitive New Frontiers program. This was the same program that launched the New Horizons spacecraft that became the first to visit dwarf planet Pluto.

Dragonfly was the winning entry of several proposed projects, including one that involved a mission to collect samples from a nearby comet.

NASA plans to launch the drone in 2026 and for it to arrive at Titan in 2034. It is hoped it will land on some of Titan’s dunes and later on a crater.

NASA to send a drone to land on Titan

The cost of preparing for this mission is capped* at just more than $1.2 billion.

“What really excites me about this mission is that Titan has all the ingredients needed for life,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division.

Titan is a haze-covered world with a thick atmosphere.

Titan media_cameraThe Cassini spacecraft recorded this image of Titan, which is normally hidden by a thick, hazy atmosphere. The bright, continent-sized feature known as Xanadu is near picture centre, bordered at the left by contrasting dark terrain. Picture: NASA

The moon has lakes of methane*, mountains of ice and an ocean below the surface, making it an attractive place to explore to check out whether its environment can support primitive* life.

“We are absolutely thrilled, and everyone is just raring to go and take the next steps in exploring Titan,” said project leader Elizabeth Turtle of Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in the US.

Titan was last studied by the international Cassini-Huygens mission. In 2017, the Cassini spacecraft plunged into Saturn, ending 20 years of exploration.

Is there life on Saturn's moons?

MORE TO KNOW ABOUT TITAN
Titan is Saturn’s largest moon and the second largest moon in our solar system.

It is 5149.4km in diameter. Earth’s moon is 3474.2km.

If Titan wasn’t orbiting Saturn, scientists would call it a planet as it is larger than Mercury.

It is covered in a thick atmosphere that could be similar to what Earth’s atmosphere was like when Earth was younger.

Its surface temperature is -179C.

Titan was discovered in 1655 by Dutch mathematician and scientist Christiaan Huygens, who also invented the pendulum* clock.

media_cameraA picture of Saturn and its ring system, taken by Cassini in 2016. Picture: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

GLOSSARY

  • microbial: relating to microorganisms or tiny living things, such as bacteria
  • capped: limited to
  • methane: a gas
  • primitive: very simple
  • pendulum: a hanging weight that swings backwards and forwards to make a clock tick

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QUICK QUIZ

  1. How is the Dragonfly powered?
  2. What excites Lori Glaze about this mission?
  3. Has any spacecraft ever been near Titan or to Saturn?
  4. How big is Titan compared to Mercury?
  5. Is Titan hotter or colder than Earth? What is the surface temperature?

LISTEN TO THIS STORY

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Ingredients for Life
Work with a partner and create a ‘recipe’ of ingredients needed to sustain life on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Structure it like you would to read a cooking recipe and think about all the requirements it would take for humans to survive on a different moon.

Recipe Name:

Ingredients:

Method: (how to create life on a moon)

Time: allow 25 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science, Personal and Social, Critical and Creative Thinking

2. Extension
NASA plans to launch the drone in 2026 and for it to arrive at Titan in 2034. What reasons to you suggest as to why it takes NASA another 7 years to launch the drone and a further 8 years for it to arrive at Titan? Write a list of all the reasons you can think of for the long time frame.

Time: allow 10 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science, Critical and Creative Thinking

VCOP ACTIVITY
With a partner see if you can identify all the doing words/verbs in this text. Highlight them in yellow and then make a list of them all down your page. Now see if you and your partner can come up with a synonym for the chosen verb. Make sure it still makes sense in the context it was taken from.

Try to replace some of the original verbs with your synonyms and discuss if any are better and why.

HAVE YOUR SAY: If you were at the controls of a drone like Dragonfly, what would you look at in our solar system? Where would you land? What would you like to discover?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

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