JHU Applied Physics Lab’s Dragonfly drone is heading to Saturn’s largest moon

NASA picked the Laurel-based center's plan for exploring Titan as its next New Frontiers mission. Launch date: 2026.

A rendering of JHU APL's Dragonfly on Saturn's moon Titan. (Photo courtesy of NASA/JHU APL

NASA’s next bold mission: To put a drone on a moon — the largest moon of Saturn, to be precise.

This week, the U.S. space agency picked a project led by Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (APL) that would send a rotorcraft lander to Titan as the next mission for its New Frontiers Program.

The 10-ft. by 10-ft. robotic lander, called Dragonfly, will have eight rotors and fly like a large UAV. The mission is the first of its kind for NASA, both in the type of vehicle being used to land on another world, and its approach to landing at multiple sites.

Dragonfly will be tasked with exploring dozens of locations across the moon. Titan holds special appeal for scientists, as it’s considered to be the world in our solar system that’s most like Earth, especially the planet’s early development. So with Dragonfly, they’ll look to take measurements and samples with an eye toward exploring how what’s happening there could improve understanding of how life came to inhabit our own planet.

“Titan is such an amazing, complex destination,” APL’s Elizabeth “Zibi” Turtle, who is Dragonfly’s principal investigator, said in a statement. “We don’t know the steps that were taken on Earth to get from chemistry to biology, but we do know that a lot of that prebiotic chemistry is actually happening on Titan today.”

For it’s part, Dragonfly will travel through a diverse array of sites, checking out dunes, the floor of a crater, and the atmosphere. The mission is expected to launch in 2026, with landing on Titan expected around 2024.

It marks another marquis project for the space-focused team at APL, which entered its proposal to NASA in 2017, . The Laurel-based center was also at the helm of the probe that went to Pluto a few years ago. There’s collaboration involved with other centers, who are also building instruments for space research.

Check out more about the mission in this video from APL.

Companies: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / NASA

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