Johns Hopkins APL
The latest NASA probe sounds amazing. Known as the Dragonfly, it is a two-rotor quadcopter (technically an octocopter, more technically an X8 octocopter); it is approximately the size of a compact car; it is completely autonomous; nuclear power; and it will move above the surface of the moon of Saturn's titan.
But Elizabeth Tuttle, the principal investigator of the mission at the Johns Hopkins Laboratory of Applied Physics, insists that this is actually quite a tamed space probe as these things go.
"There's not much new technology," she says.
Quadcopter (even X8 octocopter) is sold on Amazon these days. Self-driving technology is coming fast. Nuclear power is harder to come by, but the team plans to use the same type of system that manages the NASA Curiosity rover on Mars. Everything that goes into Dragonfly is already used elsewhere.
Which is not to say that the idea of a nuclear-powered drone flying around the moon of Saturn does not sound crazy.
"Almost everyone exposed to Dragonfly has a similar thought process. The first time you see it, you think, 'You have to be kidding, it's crazy,'" says Doug Adams, the spacecraft system engineer. But, he says, "you ultimately realize that this is an extremely feasible mission."
NASA came to this conclusion when, after much careful study, they gave the green light earlier this summer. "This revolutionary mission it would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago, "said NASA Administrator Jim Riddenstein, when the project was selected for about $ 1 billion in June. "A Big Nation Is Doing Great Things." on Saturn, it has dunes, mountains, gullies and even rivers and lakes – though Titan is so cold, the lakes are filled with liquid methane, not water.
"This is this complete package," she says, " This is a really unique place in the solar system where all these different processes come together in a very similar way to Earth.
The turtle says that these characteristics are part of what made Titan a target. It also appears that the surface is covered with organic molecules. The climate is probably too harsh for these molecules to make the move to life, but the Turtle believes that Titan can provide clues as to how the building blocks of life began on Earth.
"All of these materials are actually doing chemistry experiments for us," she says. "What we want to be able to do is take the results of these experiments to understand the same kinds of steps that have been taken here on Earth toward life."
Titan has another feature that is worth it. Note: Although the atmosphere is essentially denser than Earth's, its gravity is far lower. This makes it the perfect place to climb into the sky.
"Titan's conditions make it easier to fly there than on Earth," says Peter Bedini, project manager for Dragonfly. A drone is actually a much better way of exploring such a world than a wheeled rover.
Dragonfly will launch from Earth in 2026 and arrive on Titan in 2034. Once it enters the atmosphere, it will literally fall from the back of the capsule that brought it and fly down to a set of sand dunes on the surface. . From there, he will make a series of hops in two years, taking samples from the ground and sending back data and photos.
Adams is confident that dragons will be able to safely buzz on Titan's terrain. Because it can take nearly an hour and a half to reach Titan from Earth, it will have to fly autonomously. But, he says, there is nothing to come across: "We make a joke, if we hit a tree, then we win because we found a tree on Titan," he says.
Adams plans to use a lot of technology from the recent drone revolution here on Earth. All radars, bikes and software can be used or relatively easily adapted for Dragonfly.
But there is one thing he can't bring: "We don't really have a map, there's no GPS, you don't even have a magnetic field to orient yourself," he says. He says the drone will move by continuously photographing the landscape, creating its own
For now, the Dragonfly team is still working with drones here on Earth to figure out how to build the probe systems and software will eventually need it, but Turtle says they have time before the launch in 2026. "There's a lot to do between now and then," says Turtle. leaves to that all this is very possible.