NASA’s newest planetary scientific mission intends to land a flying robot on the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan, a top target in the search for extraterrestrial life.

The Dragonfly project will be the first of its type. NASA’s car-sized quadcopter, outfitted with instruments capable of recognising big organic compounds, is set to launch in 2026, land in 2034, and then fly to various places hundreds of miles apart.

“The science is compelling… and the mission is audacious,” said NASA’s associate administrator for science, Thomas Zurbuchen. “I am convinced that now is the moment to accomplish this.”

What is Titan’s significance?

Titan is larger than Mercury and has the same geographical diversity as Earth. This big, chilly moon has a thick, methane-rich atmosphere, ice mountains, and the only surface oceans in the solar system other than those found on Earth.

On Titan, however, the rivers and lakes are teeming with churning liquid hydrocarbons. If the moon does have water, scientists believe it is in an ocean beneath the frozen crust.

It’s a world unlike ours, but “we know it has all of the ingredients that are necessary to help life form,” said Lori Glaze, head of NASA’s planetary research division.

Titan’s intricate carbon rings and chains are essential to many basic biological activities and may mimic the building blocks from which life on Earth evolved.

Dragonfly will provide “the opportunity to discover the processes that were present on early Earth and possibly even the conditions that might harbour life today,” Glaze said.

New Frontiers

This is the fourth mission to be funded as part of NASA’s New Frontiers program, which supports medium-size planetary science projects that cost less than US$1 billion.

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