Science / Technology

JHU APL wants to use drone technology to explore Saturn’s largest moon

The Laurel lab has a new proposal for quadcopters in space. The Dragonfly mission would take measurements of sites on Titan that could support life.

A rendering of the Dragonfly on Titan. (Photo credit: JHUAPL/Mike Carroll)

Scientists at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab are making plans to push drone technology to the final frontier.
Earlier this month, a team unveiled the Dragonfly mission. It’s a proposal to send a dual-quadcopter to investigate Saturn’s largest moon to scope out sites that could be inhabitable for life.
Titan holds a lot of interest for scientists due to the presence of materials in the atmosphere and on the surface that could be key ingredients for life.

The autonomous aerial vehicle proposed by JHU APL would make it possible to land at multiple sites to take measurements of the surface and atmosphere. It would have lots of cameras, sensors and spectrometry tools to measure Titan’s composition.
According to the APL proposal, Titan’s atmosphere makes it much easier to fly on than Earth. Advances in drone technology also help the scientists have confidence that it will be a success.
“We could take a lander, put it on Titan, take these four measurements at one place, and significantly increase our understanding of Titan and similar moons,” Dragonfly project manager Peter Bedini said in a statement. “However, we can multiply the value of the mission if we add aerial mobility, which would enable us to access a variety of geologic settings, maximizing the science return and lowering mission risk by going over or around obstacles.”
The Laurel lab’s project is being proposed for NASA’s New Horizons, which is the same program that produced the APL-run Pluto probe. For now, it’s only a proposal. NASA will select a few proposals for further study this fall, and is expected to make a decision on whether to accept the mission by 2019.


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