Guest Videos: Why Are We Sending A “Dragonfly” to Titan?

At the end of June, NASA announced plans to send a drone called Dragonfly to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons.

It’s hard for most of us to get excited about such a smoggy world.

Sure, orbital locking means that Saturn hangs in the sky all day and all night at certain locations there, but what’s the point, if you can’t see this spectacle through the yellow haze?

And they say that Titan has hydrocarbon rivers and lakes. This conjures up an image of sludge creeping across a hellish landscape obscured by polluted air even more poisonous than what used to cover the Los Angeles Basin during the worst of the leaded gasoline era.

That’s okay for a movie, but NASA really wants to go there?

Sure they do, and here are just a few of the reasons why:

  • Titan is the only other Solar System moon we know of with a reasonably dense atmosphere — dense enough, in fact, for us to stand outside without a pressure suit (though we’d still need an air mask and clothes warm enough to keep us alive at -290 degrees Fahrenheit). That atmosphere is mostly nitrogen, too, just like Earth’s.
  • Get yourself some wings and you could totally fly on Titan. Its gravity is only 80% that of the Moon.

    Now imagine yourself weighing 20% less than them and not having to carry so much equipment because you’ve got atmospheric pressure on your side. The Titan Olympics would be awesome!

  • Titan really isn’t a hellish place like Venus, even counting the cold. The landscape, made of rock-hard water ice, is actually kind of interesting. Titan has weather, as well as seasons. Wind and rain have shaped ridges, plains, dune fields, river systems, and lakes. There may even be cryovolcanoes, erupting ammonia/water “lava.”
  • Covering much of the land is a variety of very complex carbon-based stuff that rains out of the clouds — stuff that could be life as we know it (water based) or life as we don’t know it (in Titan’s case, hydrocarbon based). Or maybe just a bunch of lifeless chemicals; that would be important to know, too.
  • Underneath this surface is an ocean. Titan is actually a water world!
  • Scientists theorize that life on Earth began when our own planet’s atmosphere was rather like Titan’s is now. This moon of Saturn gives them a way to test their ideas about how our own history began.

Y’know, it’s really too bad that the Enterprise crew didn’t send down a shuttle while they were there.

Fortunately, we’ve already done this.

Thanks to the unmanned Huygens lander, we know what the Sun looks like from Titan’s surface.

Want to know more about Titan and the Dragonfly mission, which is scheduled to launch in 2025 and arrive at its destination in 2034?

Here’s Dragonfly’s mission page and, below, a January 2019 talk by the principal investigator:

Edited June 15, 2020.

Featured image: Wikimedia

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