NASA is set to launch a groundbreaking mission to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, in 2027. The mission, called Dragonfly, will embark on a journey of exploration that could lead to a new understanding of the development of life in the universe. Dragonfly will carry an instrument called the Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer (DraMS), designed to help scientists focus on the chemistry at work on Titan, shedding light on the types of chemical processes that took place on Earth leading to the formation of life, called prebiotic chemistry.
Titan’s complex carbon-rich chemistry, interior ocean, and past presence of liquid water on the surface make it the perfect destination to study prebiotic chemical processes and the potential habitability of extraterrestrial environments. DraMS will enable scientists to remotely study the chemical composition of Titan’s surface, allowing them to determine if the type of chemistry that could be crucial for early pre-biochemical systems on Earth is taking place on Titan.
Dragonfly will use a robotic rotorcraft to capitalize on Titan’s low gravity and dense atmosphere to fly between different points of interest on the moon’s surface, which could be several miles apart. The rotorcraft can relocate its entire suite of instruments to a new site when the previous one has been fully explored, providing access to samples in environments with various geologic histories.
At each site, the Drill for Acquisition of Complex Organics (DrACO) will be used to extract samples less than a gram in size from the surface, which will be brought inside the lander’s main body, to a place called the “attic” that houses the DraMS instrument. There, the samples will be irradiated by an onboard laser or vaporized in an oven to be measured by DraMS. A mass spectrometer is an instrument that analyzes the various chemical components of a sample by separating these components into their base molecules and passing them through sensors for identification.
DraMS is designed to look at the organic molecules that may be present on Titan, at their composition and distribution in different surface environments. Organic molecules contain carbon and are used by all known forms of life. They are of interest in understanding the formation of life because they can be created by living and non-living processes. DraMS was developed in part by the same team at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center which developed the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite aboard the Curiosity rover. DraMS is designed to survey samples of Titanian surface material in situ, using techniques tested on Mars with the SAM suite.
Dragonfly is the fourth mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program, managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate Washington. The mission will be a groundbreaking effort to explore the possibility of life on Titan, and DraMS will be a critical instrument in helping scientists understand the chemistry at work on the moon’s surface. By using established methods that have been applied on Mars and elsewhere, DraMS will provide a flexible tool to adapt to the different types of surface samples and enable scientists to identify potential prebiotic chemistry that may have led to the formation of life.
Moons of Saturn – Wikipedia
NASA – Wikipedia
NASA Is Sending Dragonfly on a Revolutionary Mission to Saturn’s Moon Titan – Here’s Why – SciTechDaily
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center – SciTechDaily
New Frontiers Program – NASA
Saturn – Wikipedia
The Molecule Dissector – Mass Spectrometry – YouTube
Titan – Wikipedia
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