NASA to launch project designed by University of Idaho researcher

NASA to launch project designed by University of Idaho researcher
This illustration shows NASA's Dragonfly rotorcraft-lander approaching a site on Saturn's exotic moon, Titan.

A project envisioned by a University of Idaho researcher has been selected by NASA for launch.

The mission, known as Dragonfly, plans to launch a robotic robocraft lander to Saturn’s moon Titan. The project involves 35 scientists from around the world and is funded for up to $850 million. It is lead by Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, and beat 11 other teams to win NASA’s New Frontiers Program competition.

“NASA’s missions of planetary exploration are one of the coolest things that we humans do as a species,” said U of I Associate Professor Jason Barnes, a founding member and deputy principal investigator of the Dragonfly project. “To have our idea be selected to actually fly is what every planetary scientist dreams about.”

The Dragonfly spacecraft is named for its insect shape. It’s a dual qaudcopter, meaning it has eight rotors. and will be able to fly from site to site on the alien moon, potentially traveling tens of kilometers at a time. It is set to launch in 2025 and arrive at Titan in December of 2034. Its primary mission lasts two years.

Along with Earth, Venus, and Mars, Titan is among the only places in our solar system with substantive atmospheres and solid surfaces. The moon’s dense atmosphere makes flying easier than on earth.
Barnes said the design of the quadcopter allows researchers to answer questions that would be difficult when using a rolling rover or a stationary probe.

Throughout its mission, the quadcopter will be able to sample and analyze the icy crust, the hydrocarbon sands and the atmosphere; take meteorological measurements; photograph the landscape; and record any seismic activity.

“Dragonfly will determine just how far Titan’s organics have come on the path toward life,” Barnes said. “If some primitive form of molecular life has been able to form under Titan conditions, then we think that we can discover it by the end of our mission in 2037.”

More information on the Dragonfly mission and University of Idaho’s space research is available at University of Idaho’s website.

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