NASA’s mission to send a drone to Saturn’s largest moon has been delayed by a year.
It means the launch to Titan won’t take place until 2027, with the Dragonfly drone arriving aboard a spacecraft eight years later in 2035.
In a message posted online over the weekend, NASA said the decision to delay the launch is “based on factors external to the Dragonfly project team, including COVID-19’s impact on the Planetary Science Division’s budget.”
When it reaches Titan, Dragonfly will become the first multi-rotor vehicle to take flight on another planet. In a similar first from NASA, we’ll soon see the first-ever rotorcraft to take flight on another planet when Ingenuity reaches Mars, together with the Perseverance rover, in February 2021.
Flying in an atmosphere four times denser than Earth’s, Dragonfly will also become the first vehicle to fly its entire science payload to multiple locations for repeatable and targeted access to surface materials, NASA said.
Dragonfly is a nuclear-powered drone with a dual-rotor quadcopter design, meaning that it has two sets of rotors on each of its four arms. Upon its arrival, the flying machine will make its first landing at the equatorial “Shangri-La” dune fields, which NASA says are “terrestrially similar to the linear dunes in Namibia in southern Africa.” It’ll then spend several years “leapfrogging” between numerous locations of interest as it sets about exploring its new surroundings.
Titan is the second-largest moon in our solar system and its distance from the sun is about 10 times that of our own planet. Scientists find it fascinating for a range of reasons, not least because it has a nitrogen-based atmosphere like Earth, and its weather and surface processes have combined complex organics, energy, and water similar to those that may have sparked life on our own planet billions of years ago.
Lori Glaze, director for the Planetary Science Division at NASA headquarters in Washington D.C., said Dragonfly will “significantly increase our understanding of this richly organic world” as scientists seek to gain more knowledge about the building blocks of life and how it started on Earth.
Dragonfly is the fourth mission selected as part of the agency’s New Frontiers program, the others being New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, the Juno mission to Jupiter, and the OSIRIS-REx mission to the asteroid Bennu.
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