NASA will send a drone to Titan to search for life

The drone is called Dragonfly and already costs over $3 billion

by Lorenzo Ciotti
NASA will send a drone to Titan to search for life
© Wikimedia commons

Titan is Saturn's largest natural satellite. It is also the only satellite in the solar system with a dense atmosphere. With its liquids and its thick atmosphere, Titan is considered similar to the primordial Earth, but with a much lower temperature, where the methane cycle replaces the hydrological cycle present on our planet.

Titan is composed mostly of water ice and rocky material. Its thick atmosphere prevented observation of the surface until the arrival of the Cassini-Huygens space mission in 2004, which made it possible to reach the surface with a landing vehicle.

Cassini-Huygens exploration led to the discovery of lakes of liquid hydrocarbons in the satellite's polar regions. Geologically the surface is young; there are some mountains and possible cryovolcanoes, but it is generally flat and smooth with few impact craters observed.

Titan's atmosphere is 95% nitrogen. There are also minor components such as methane and ethane, which thicken to form clouds. The average surface temperature is very close to the triple point of methane where the liquid, solid and gaseous forms of this hydrocarbon can coexist. The climate, which includes wind and methane rain, has created surface features similar to those found on Earth, such as dunes, rivers, lakes and seas, and, like Earth, has seasons.

Titan© Wikimedia commons

NASA will send a drone to Titan to search for life

And now, NASA will send a drone named Dragonfly to search for life on Titan. Dragonfly will weigh 450 kilograms and already costs over $3 billion.

The craft will study Saturn's moon. Prebiotic chemical processes will be studied on Titan to understand if they are compatible with life.

In a press release, NASA said: "It will fly to dozens of promising locations on the moon, looking for prebiotic chemical processes that are common both on Titan and in the early stages of Earth, before life developed."

Titan© Wikimedia commons

Titan's current atmospheric composition is believed to be similar to that of Earth's second atmosphere, although a complete analogy cannot be established because Titan is very far from the Sun and quite cold.

The presence of complex organic compounds in the atmosphere makes it a subject of considerable interest for exobiologists. The Miller-Urey experiment and other laboratory tests demonstrate how complex molecules such as tholin can develop in an atmosphere similar to that of Titan and in the presence of ultraviolet radiation.

The experiments suggest that there is sufficient organic material for the chemical evolution that occurred on Earth to occur on Titan. For this to happen, however, it is assumed that liquid water is present for longer periods than currently observed.

If Titan's crust is largely composed of water ice, it has been hypothesized that a high-velocity impact of a celestial body could result in the formation of a lake of water that would remain liquid for hundreds of years, a period sufficient for the synthesis of complex organic molecules.

Furthermore, if the moon's interior was completely rocky, Saturn's gravitational tides would have led to the formation of reliefs of quite significant heights. The Cassini probe's findings indicate that these reach rather modest heights.

This can be justified by the presence of an ocean of water mixed with ammonia under the crust and, although extreme conditions would be reached for terrestrial organisms, it has still been hypothesized that it could host living organisms.