Nasa funds helicopter mission to hunt for alien life on Titan

Dragonfly is a drone-like rotorcraft that would land on the surface of Saturn's largest moon Titan and be able to explore the moon for hundreds of kilometres flying from location to location

After Dragonfly and CAESAR complete their Phase A concept studies, NASA officials will rigorously evaluate the missions to decide which will continue on with development and, eventually, liftoff. "The science in the two selected was just the top science".

The mission would return to Earth on November 20, 2038, unprecedented samples in tow.

CAESAR is created to collect both volatile ices and nonvolatile materials, which will be separated and placed in different containers in a return capsule.

Both missions would feature a long wait: Dragonfly would arrive at Titan in 2034, and CAESAR's samples would return to Earth in 2038. That return capsule will be provided by the Japanese space agency JAXA, based on its experience with the Hayabusa asteroid sample return missions.

Rosetta's exploration of the comet makes the mission much less risky than visiting any other comet, said Squyres, who's also the principal investigator of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover mission, which landed the golf-cart-size robots Spirit and Opportunity on the Red Planet in 2004: "We're able to say to our engineers, OK, here's the size-frequency distribution of the particles on the surface, here's how strong the surface is; we can design for specific conditions that we know to exist".




Dragonfly is led by Elizabeth "Zibi" Turtle, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. "Dragonfly is created to go back and build on what we learned from Cassini/Huygens and answers the fundamental unknowns that remain about Titan". Runners-up include a mission to collect samples from the moon, a probe for Saturn's atmosphere, and missions to Venus and Saturn's moon Enceladus.

The ELSAH mission concept will receive funds to improve cost-effective techniques that limit spacecraft infection and thereby allow life detection measurements on cost-capped missions. The exact amount of funding, and the scope of work, will be negotiated with those proposal teams. Zurbuchen said of the decision to support technology for those two mission concepts. The instrument uses lasers on a lander to measure the mineralogy and elemental composition of rocks on the surface of Venus. The program is called New Frontiers, and it involves a competition in which participants submit proposals for possible future missions that NASA could undertake. Its predecessors are the New Horizons mission to Pluto and a Kuiper Belt object known as 2014 MU69; the Juno mission to Jupiter; and OSIRIS-REx, which will rendezvous with and return a sample of the asteroid Bennu.

Either CAESAR or Dragonfly, if selected, will operate well into the 2030s. Although frigid, Titan is otherwise a relatively benign place, and the rotocraft could survive for several years. Dragonfly would be managed by APL, whereas CAESAR would be managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

The CEASAR comet sample-return mission concept proposes returning a piece of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko to Earth 14 years after the mission's launch. "Knowing when the thing is going to end", he said of CAESAR, "is a virtue".

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