Dragonfly delayed – formal confirmation of journey to Saturn's moon slips into 2024
Titan trip postponed while NASA awaits the FY 2025 budget request
The future of NASA's Dragonfly trip to Saturn's moon Titan is looking uncertain after the agency gave the go-ahead for work to proceed on the final design and fabrication but kicked formal confirmation of the mission into mid-2024.
Dragonfly (click to enlarge) Pic: Johns Hopkins APL
The problem appears to be one of cash – the confirmation has been put on hold until the FY 2025 President's Budget Request is released.
The launch date for the expedition has moved repeatedly. Originally slated for launch in 2026, the team was directed by NASA to target 2027 for a launch readiness date. The date was recently moved to July 2028 but depends on an assessment in 2024 at the Agency Program Management Council.
A glance at the FY 2024 President's Budget [PDF] shows the budget for Dragonfly, a New Frontiers mission, dropping – down to $327.7 million from the $400.1 million enacted in 2023. With NASA's budget being squeezed, things will have to give, including, it seems, the ambitious Dragonfly assignment.
Hopefully, this is just a delay rather than a precursor to a rethink of the agency's undertakings. Dragonfly made it through a design review earlier this year and the team conducted a replan of the mission based on the expected funding available in FY 2024. The result was the launch readiness date of July 2028.
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As for the operation itself, Dragonfly will employ a rotorcraft-lander to travel around sites on Titan. The goal is to characterize the environment and hunt for indications that water- or hydrocarbon-based life once existed on Saturn's satellite. Over the planned two-year quest on the moon, the plan is to have the probe travel several hundred kilometers. It will also use a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG) for power.
Titan was previously visited by the European Space Agency's Huygens probe, which landed in January 2005 after being released by the Cassini orbiter in December 2004.
The probe found chunks of water ice scattered over an orange surface and a hazy methane atmosphere. The rounding of the chunks of ice hinted at the action of fluids. All of his has piqued the curiosity of scientists and added to calls in support of a return to the Saturn moon. ®