Such work will help scientists learn more about Titan, the only solar system body other than Earth known to host stable bodies of liquid on its surface. With one hop per full Titan day (16 Earth days), the rotorcraft would travel from its initial landing site to cover areas several hundred kilometers away during the planned two-year mission.
Titan is a worthy target because it is really odd but its atmosphere and environment contains molecules that could have kick-started life as we know it. During its 2.7-year baseline mission, Dragonfly will explore diverse environments from organic dunes to the floor of an impact crater where liquid water and complex organic materials key to life once existed together for possibly tens of thousands of years. That's because the three ingredients necessary for life as we know it - liquid water, organic molecules and energy - mixed during the impact that created the crater.
The drone will first land in Titan's sand dunes near the equatorial region.
"We will launch Dragonfly to explore the frontiers of human knowledge for the benefit of all humanity", NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said.
"This revolutionary mission would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago". The mission aims to "investigate organic chemistry, evaluate habitability and search for chemical signatures of past or even present life", he added.
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Dragonfly's first destination is dune fields that are terrestrially similar to dunes found in southern Africa.
"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". Unlike Earth, Titan has clouds and rain of methane. It will examine dozens of locations across the moon, collecting samples and measurements of organic surface materials.
Titan is about 1.4 billion kilometers (886 million miles) from the Sun, with surface temperatures of around -179 degrees Celsius (-290 degrees Fahrenheit) and surface pressure about 50 percent higher than Earth.
Called Dragonfly, the dual-quadrotor drone is the brainchild of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). 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 is managed by the Planetary Missions Program Office at NASAs Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agencys Planetary Science Division in Washington.
"Flying on Titan is actually easier than flying on Earth ... so it's the best way to travel, and it's the best way to go long distances", Turtle said during a NASA webcast.