NASA confirms nuclear-powered Dragonfly drone is going to Titan

Whew! Relief for boffins as rotorcraft slated to arrive at Saturn moon in 2034

NASA has finally confirmed its Dragonfly rotorcraft mission will be heading to Titan, one of Saturn's Moons, meaning the team behind the project can finalize its design and get to work building the spacecraft.

Things had been looking a little risky for the drone as budgets were squeezed and launch dates shifted – Dragonfly was originally slated for launch in 2026. But yesterday NASA approved the mission and the July 2028 launch date, with a scheduled arrival at Titan in 2034.

The total lifecycle cost of the mission is currently $3.35 billion, approximately double the proposed cost. The increases were blamed on the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain issues, and "the results of an in-depth design iteration." The project was also directed to replan multiple times due to funding constraints in fiscal years 2020 and 2022.

Artist’s concept of Dragonfly soaring over the dunes of Saturn’s moon Titan. NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben

Artist illustration of NASA's Dragonfly over the dunes of Saturn’s Titan ... Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben - Click for source

Additional funding has been provided for a heavy-lift launch vehicle to cut the time needed for the cruise phase to Saturn. NASA did not specify which heavy-lift launcher would be used, although the agency did use the SpaceX Falcon Heavy to launch the Psyche mission in 2023 and plans to use the rocket for its Europa Clipper later in 2024.

Confirmation of the Titan visit is a spark of optimism amid budgetary gloom at NASA. The increasing costs of the Mars Sample Return expedition combined with funding constraints could mean cannibalization for some of the agency's other projects. It is, therefore, a relief for many engineers and scientists that DragonFly, which is to be designed and built under the direction of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, received its confirmation.

Powered by a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG) – like the Mars Curiosity rover – the Dragonfly dual-quadcopter drone is expected to travel hundreds of kilometers during its planned two-year exploration of Titan.

According to the team, "In under an hour, Dragonfly will cover tens of miles or kilometers, farther than any planetary rover has traveled."

The vehicle will, however, spend most of its time on the surface of Titan, making science measurements.

Titan has long fascinated scientists. The Voyager probes imaged the moon in 1979 and 1980, but the organic haze in the atmosphere obscured the surface in visible wavelengths. In 2004, the Cassini orbiter arrived and mapped much of the moon's surface. In 2005, Cassini released the Huygens probe, which parachuted to the surface.

If everything goes according to plan, almost 30 years later, it will be the turn of Dragonfly to inspect the surface of Titan. ®

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