NASA is going to send the Dragonfly to look for life on Titan

© NASA/JHU APL

It’s official : the fourth act of the New Frontier Program has been endorsed by the space agency and north american. This ambitious program, a major scientific importance, is to understand how life could emerge from chemical elements initially inert. For this, the next stop is located on the Titan. Fans of Marvel know certainly the largest moon of Saturn as the cradle of the super-villain of Marvel’s Thanos. Fans of space exploration, for their part, know that it is a field of play particularly fascinating and promising for all scientists in search of the origins of life. And this for several reasons.


In fact, the conditions on the surface of Titan look like the real deal to the ones found on our Earth shortly after its release, the cradle, there are four billion years – although at a lower temperature. This moon of Saturn is full of features very interesting. Its atmosphere, for example, is largely made up of nitrogen ( that of our Earth, it comprises close to 80%). On Earth, nitrogen is known for its importance in many biological cycles, and this detail is not trivial.


Titan also has the distinction of having, and the weather is remarkable, with the presence of winds. There are even seasonal variations. Titan also has a cycle of methane, on the same model as the cycle of water on Earth ! We therefore find rains of methane and ethane (another hydrocarbon), which form lakes, rivers and even seas, as much in surface as underground. These features of weather have also given rise to a true geological activity, which is reflected in particular by the eruptions of cryovolcans.


The surface of the planet, it is composed of a thick layer of ice. Below this, the scientists suspect the presence of a giant reservoir of liquid water, at a temperature which would be fairly close to that of the Pacific ocean : a prospect enough to give sleepless nights to any biologist. And the icing on the cake, Titan is also home to a slew of complex molecules that are precursors to potential for a chemistry of life.


© NASA

Four billion years of chemistry in vase close to study


With all these ingredients, it’s easy to see why Titan arouses so much interest in the context of the research on the origin of Life. It houses all the necessary ingredients -to our knowledge – the emergence of a form of life. There is, therefore, to go check out what the chance will be produced on site, as explained by Carl Sagan in Scientific American :



On Titan, the flood of molecules fallen from the sky during four billion years might still be there, largely preserved, frozen, awaiting the chemists earthlings !



And for this large mission, the candidate is already found : it is the Dragonfly, a drone octocoptère particularly suited to the exploration of Titan. In fact, it will run on nuclear energy : almost one and a half billion kilometres from the sun, its radiation is not intense enough to power such a spacecraft via solar panels…



It will play directly on one of the main features of Titan, namely its atmosphere. It will allow Dragonfly to use a parachute for landing, rather than having to use its power of propulsion as on the Moon, for example. It will therefore be able to keep it and explore its surface with the help of its four propellers, a configuration where-as permitted by the presence of an atmosphere.


It will be the fourth mission in the framework of the project New Frontiers. Juno, quietly parked in orbit around Jupiter, observing the atmosphere and its magnetic field. The second, New Horizons, near Pluto in 2015, and the Kuiper belt in 2018. The last in date, OSIRIS-REx, is currently stationed in orbit close to the asteroid Bennu, until you find a window to ask and go there to take samples.

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