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NASA is sending a life-hunting drone to Saturn's huge moon Titan

By Mike Wall
June 28, 2019, 1:43:45 PM EDT

NASA is going to Titan.

The space agency announced today (June 27) that the next mission in its New Frontiers line of medium-cost missions will be Dragonfly, a rotorcraft designed to ply the skies of the huge, hazy and potentially life-hosting Saturn moon.

If all goes according to plan, Dragonfly will launch in 2026 and land on Titan eight years later, NASA officials said. The probe will then spend at least 2.5 years cruising around the 3,200-mile-wide (5,150 kilometers) moon, making two dozen flights that cover a total of about 110 miles (180 km).

dragonfly saturn titan

An artist's depiction of the Dragonfly spacecraft on the surface of Titan. (Image: © Johns Hopkins APL)

The 10-foot-long (3 meters) Dragonfly will gather a variety of data at each of its stops. Such work will help scientists learn more about Titan, the only solar system body other than Earth known to host stable bodies of liquid on its surface.

Titan's surface lakes, rivers and seas aren't composed of water, however: The frigid moon's climate system is based on hydrocarbons, in particular methane and ethane.

The mission is geared toward characterizing Titan's chemistry in detail. Complex organic molecules are known to swirl in the moon's thick, nitrogen-dominated atmosphere, and some scientists think its hydrocarbon seas could host exotic forms of life.

Titan also hosts another potentially habitable environment — a buried ocean of liquid water, which sloshes beneath the moon's icy crust.

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