NASA’s considering sending a nuclear powered flying robotic laser guided quadcopter drone to a world with oceans, rain and maybe one of the best views in our solar system.
That’s right, this is one of two potential missions that NASA has narrowed down for their final mission in their New Frontiers Program.
Today I’m going to tell you all about ONE of those two missions as I go head to head against the publisher of Universe Today, Fraser Cain in a battle for the best potential mission.
After you’ve heard from both of us, you get to vote on which one you think should win, which almost certainly will forever shape the history of space exploration. Either that or NASA won’t care at all what we think… hmmm… Anyway, here’s what Fraser has to say, this better be good…
“I’m Fraser Cain, publisher of Universe Today and the host of the Guide to Space. Tim’s going to convince you that NASA should choose a nuclear powered helicopter for Titan. And while I think that’s an awesome idea, it’s my job to convince you that a comet sample return makes more sense.
So, after you’ve heard Tim’s argument, come on over to my channel and I’ll make the case for comet sample return. Then vote.”
So wait, you’re telling me you want to scoop up some boring old space dirt and bring it home?! You’ve got a real uphill battle here Fraser.
NUCLEAR. POWERED. FLYING. DRONE. Vs space dirt…. Well, let’s get started!
In December of 2017 NASA narrowed down its potential upcoming planetary science missions to just two. The Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return (CAESAR), a mission that would return to the same Comet that Rosetta recently flew to, scoop up some comet dirt and then bring it back to Earth.
The other option is Dragonfly. A nuclear-powered quadcopter that would fly around in the thick atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan, efficiently exploring more of this incredible world than any other interplanetary mission.
Unfortunately there’s only room for one mission. Each team will continue to perfect their proposals until NASA makes their final decision mid 2019. If all goes well, NASA would be able to launch the winning mission as early as 2024!
Before we get into the details of the Dragonfly Space Drone, let’s talk about its destination first. Titan.
Titan is amazing. Seriously, after researching for this video, I realized how incredible Titan is, and now more than ever, I really really want to explore it.
Titan is the largest moon orbiting Saturn and the second largest moon in our solar system. Titan is larger than Mercury and larger than our own moon. This thing is huge.
In some ways Titan is the most Earth-like body in our solar system. It’s actually kind of the most potentially habitable for us humans too, and there’s a remote possibility it could be teaming with super unique alien life. Just maybe.
Titan has a thick atmosphere. A really thick atmosphere. It’s 1.45 times thicker than here on Earth, which means you could go outside without a spacesuit. But, there’s two reasons why you wouldn’t want to do that.
First you’d be better bring the warmest coat imaginable as it’s -180c or -292 F. Brr. Also, you’ll need to bring some oxygen since Titan’s atmosphere is almost entirely nitrogen with some methane and hydrogen.
And with its super thick atmosphere and gravity close to our own moon, you’d actually be able to strap on some wings, flap your arms, and fly around Titan like a bird! SIGN ME UP!
Unlike other potentially habitable-ish planets like Mars or our own moon, Titan’s thick atmosphere and Saturn’s massive magnetosphere could protect life from dangerous Galactic Cosmic Rays and other dangerous radiation.
And despite its freezing cold temperatures, due to its thick atmosphere, we wouldn’t require crazy big and vacuum sealed habitats. Habitats could be more like a heated plastic tent which could be lightweight and maybe even be manufactured using resources right there on Titan.
If we were to try and inhabit the moon or Mars permanently, we’d either need massively shielded habitats or, live entirely underground to protect us long term. That doesn’t sound too fun does it.
Ok so, so far Titan doesn’t sound anything like Earth, does it. But here’s where things get interesting.
The craziest part of Titan is it has liquid oceans. But instead of the oceans being liquid water, they’re actually liquid methane! This one is kind of hard for me to grasp, but let’s take water here on Earth as an example first.
Earth is the right temperature to have liquid water. If Earth was warmer, like a lot warmer, all of that water would boil and evaporate into a gas. If Earth was a lot colder, all that water would freeze and become a solid, otherwise known as ice.
And like ALL matter, methane exists in one of five states, but let’s just stick to the three we’re most familiar with. Liquids, solids and gases. Due to Titan being so cold, methane exists as a liquid, which it does below ?161 °C (?257.8 °F) and above that temperature it’s a gas, like we may be more familiar with here on Earth.
And although there isn’t liquid water on the surface of Titan, there’s water trapped below the crust of Titan. This is exciting not only for the possibility of potential life as we know it down there, but also as means of survival for potential human exploration.
Speaking of life… don’t forget, here on Earth, we’ve only ever observed life in the presence of water. All life on Earth requires the presence of liquid water to exist. This is because water is the lubricant for the molecular process of all known life. But, maybe in my overly optimistic outlook, there’s one keyword here that gets me excited.
KNOWN life. Some scientists hypothesize that life could potentially exist using ammonia and methane as a molecular lubricant instead of water. But really, we just simply don’t know until we observe otherwise.
But in my opinion, how absolutely incredible would it we be if we someday discover life as we don’t know it. Life that’s nothing like here on Earth. Life that’s so different, it makes Hollywood’s depictions of alien life seem downright hilarious.
Ok, so Titan. It’s a super crazy cool world. So now let’s talk about exploring Titan. Tell us about that DRONE TIM!!!! Ok! The drone would have a leash to walk Titan dogs like this. Ok, no not at all. It’d actually look like this.
Dragonfly has 8 propellers in an X8 configuration. This allows for multi motor-out capability, assuming you don’t lose both motors on the same arm.
As we’ve mentioned, due to Titan’s thick atmosphere and low gravity, flying around Titan would be super easy. It’d be a very efficient and extremely safe way to explore. With nothing to run into besides potential space pterodactyls, the drone could easily cover 10s if not 100’s of kilometers within its 2 year planned lifespan.
That’s an insane amount of potential exploration! A big change from previous land roving rovers.
The current record holder for furthest distance traveled on another body is NASA’s plucky Mars Opportunity rover which has traveled 45 kms or 28 miles as of January 2018. Its taken Opportunity over 14 years to travel that far though… so it’s not what we’d call quick…
Before Opportunity the previous record holder was the USSR’s Lunokhod 2 moon rover which traveled 39 kilometers or 24 miles in 1973 over its four month mission.
Lunokhod 2 broke the previous record held by two HUMANS! That’s right, the Apollo 17 lunar rover piloted by Harrison Schmitt and Eugene Cernan traveled pretty darn far, a respectable 35.7 kms or 22 miles on the surface of the moon in less than 3 days.
Another thing that’s cool about Dragonfly is it would be powered by a small nuclear generator. Specifically a radioisotope thermoelectric generator or RTG. It’d actually be the same RTG that powers the awesome Curiosity Mars rover!
RTG’s convert the heat of decaying radioactive material, into electricity! The excess heat would also be pumped back into the body of the drone to keep its electronics at a comfortable room temperature, a win win.
The RTG recharges the onboard battery which actually powers the drone. This allows the drone to fly around for the duration of the battery and then land and recharge, even during Titan’s night which lasts 8 Earth days.
But maybe one of the most exciting things is Dragonfly can measure bulk elemental surface composition with a neutron-activated gamma-ray spectrometer and monitor atmospheric and surface conditions including diurnal and spatial variations with meteorology sensors?????!?! What?
I have no idea. Cool stuff probably. Good thing I’m not on the planning team because I’d probably just say “Put lasers on it and make sure it can do cool barrel rolls.”
Although the Dragonfly mission would be super exciting, it wouldn’t actually be the first mission to the surface of Titan. Nope! On January 14th, 2005, the Huygens probe successfully touched down on the surface of Titan.
Huygens flew along with the wonderful Cassini spacecraft which studied the Saturn system for 14 years, ending its incredibly fruitful mission just recently, in September 2017.
Although the Huygens spacecraft only lasted 90 minutes on the surface of Titan, it still provided very useful data about the conditions of Titan, paving the way for further exploration.
Man, I’m so excited about a drone flying around Titan and potentially making some incredible discoveries.
So what do you think? Are you a fan of Titan? Do you want us to explore Titan further, if not, where do you think we should explore next? Let me know in your thoughts below!
And although he’s going to have a hard time convincing us why CAESAR is even remotely worth considering, we need to remember to head on over to Fraser Cain’s channel to learn more about what NASA’s other option is… I just really have a hard time imaging how it could possibly be anywhere near as cool as Dragonfly.
Once you do that, be sure and hit the link in the description to cast your vote!
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