Titan is peculiar place in many of the same ways that Earth is a peculiar place. Despite being the moon of another planet, it has a substantial atmosphere. Like Earth, it has liquid rivers and water bodies, not just ancient river beds or seasonal flows. Its atmosphere is mostly composed of nitrogen, much like our own. Here is where the similarities stop. Instead of rivers of H2O, Titan is believed to have seas of liquid methane and ethane, while liquid water lies beneath the icy surface of Titan. Titan is shrouded in a hazy atmosphere, obscuring its surface from our telescopes. Only Cassini has glimpsed its surface using radar waves. The Huygens probe landed on the chilly surface and recorded temperatures of -179 degrees Celsius (-290 degrees Fahrenheit).
Titan is an exciting prospect for researchers. So far, it’s the best candidate in our solar system for signs of life, maybe even life very different from our own. It could also be a riveting moon with no life at all. We can’t know until we go. What can we expect from a new mission to Titan? Another rover sent to a promising location that is both accessible and an educated prospect for in situ research? Not today NASA! Titan has one other very intriguing feature, its surface pressure is 50 percent higher than Earth with a super dense atmosphere. At first blush, this may seem like a drawback. Crushing pressure puts wear and tear on machines and electrical systems. On the flip side, a dense atmosphere makes it easier to, wait for it… fly a drone.
For the first time, NASA will explore a world by aircraft during the aptly named Dragonfly mission. NASA used the knowledge gained from the Cassini-Huygens mission to choose a mild weather period and safe zone for the initial landing. Its first target is the Shangri-la dune fields. From there, it will take short test flights leading up to longer, 8 kilometer flights, to new sampling locations, flying with its scientific payload.
This has distinct advantages. NASA Researchers won’t be as constrained by geography. Dragonfly will start with the dune fields with the goal of landing in the Selk crater. Researchers believe the Selk crater holds all the ingredients for life as we know it, including evidence of past liquid water and organics, like hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. The mission will fly more than 175 kilometers, crossing a much greater distance than all the Mars rovers combined.
As cool as this sounds, we have a long wait. The mission launches in 2026 and arrives on Titan in 2034. They say, patience is a virtue. Tell that to my cat.