NASA Dragonfly headed for Saturn’s giant moon Titan could reveal chemistry that leads to life

Artist’s impression of Dragonfly on Titan’s surface. Taking advantage of Titan’s dense atmosphere and low gravity, Dragonfly will explore dozens of locations on the icy world, sample and measure the composition of Titan’s organic surface materials to characterize the habitability of Titan’s environment and investigate the evolution of prebiotic chemistry. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

A new one NASA mission to Saturn‘s giant moon, Titan, is due to launch in 2027. When it arrives in the mid-2030s, it will begin a journey of discovery that could create a new understanding of the evolution of life in the universe. This mission, called Dragonfly, will carry an instrument called the Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer (DraMS), designed to help scientists hone in on the chemistry at work on Titan. It may also shed light on the kinds of chemical steps that took place on Earth that ultimately led to the formation of life, called prebiotic chemistry.

Titan’s abundant complex carbon-rich chemistry, internal oceans, and past presence of liquid water on its surface make it an ideal destination for studying prebiotic chemical processes and the potential habitability of an extraterrestrial environment.

DraMS will allow scientists back on Earth to remotely study the chemical composition of the Titanian surface. “We want to know if the type of chemistry that could be important for early pre-biochemical systems on Earth is taking place on Titan,” explains Dr. Melissa Trainer of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland.

NASA Dragonfly Rotorcraft Lander

This illustration shows NASA’s Dragonfly rotorcraft lander approaching a site on Saturn’s exotic moon Titan. Credit: Johns Hopkins/APL

Trainer is a planetary scientist and astrobiologist who specializes in Titan and is one of the Dragonfly mission’s Deputy Principal Investigators. She is also leading the DraMS instrument, which will scan through measurements of samples from Titan’s surface material for signs of prebiotic chemistry.

To accomplish this, the Dragonfly robotic rotorcraft will take advantage of Titan’s low gravity and dense atmosphere to fly between various points of interest on Titan’s surface, spread as far as several miles apart. This allows Dragonfly to move its entire suite of instruments to a new location once the previous one has been fully explored, providing access to samples in environments with a range of geologic histories.

At each site, samples of less than one gram will be drilled out of the surface by the Drill for Acquisition of Complex Organics (DrACO) and brought into the main body of the lander to a place called the “loft” that houses the DraMS instrument. There they will be irradiated with a built-in 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.

Saturn Moon Titan NASA Cassini spacecraft

The colorful globe of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, passes in front of the planet and its rings in this true-color snapshot from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

“DraMS is designed to look at the organic molecules that may be present on Titan, at their composition and distribution in different surface environments,” says Trainer. Organic molecules contain carbon and are used by all known life forms. They have an interest in understanding the formation of life because they can be created by living and non-living processes.

Mass spectrometers (see video below) determine what is in a sample by ionizing the material (that is, bombarding it with energy so that the atoms in it become positively or negatively charged) and examining the chemical composition of the various compounds. This involves determining the ratio between the weight of the molecule and its charge, which serves as a signature for the compound.

What do you do if you have a sample from another planet and you want to find out if it contains a certain molecule… maybe even one that will reveal that the planet can support life? When scientists face a situation like this, they use an amazing tool: the mass spectrometer. It does the hard work of separating materials so researchers can look very closely at a sample and see what’s inside. Learn more about this tool in this video from NASA Goddard’s Solar System Exploration Division.

DraMS was developed in part by the same team at Goddard that developed the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite aboard the Curiosity rover. DraMS is designed to examine samples of Titanian surface material on pageusing techniques tested on Mars with the SAM package.

Coach emphasized the benefits of this legacy. Dragonfly’s scientists did not want to “reinvent the wheel” when it came to searching for organic compounds on Titan, and instead built on established methods that have been used on Mars and elsewhere. “This design has given us an instrument that is very flexible that can adapt to the different types of surface samples,” says Trainer.

DraMS and other science instruments on Dragonfly are being designed and built under the direction of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, which manages the mission for NASA and designs and builds the rotorcraft lander. The team includes key partners at Goddard, the French Space Agency (CNES, Paris, France), which provides the gas chromatograph module for DraMS that will provide additional separation after exiting the furnace, Lockheed Martin Space, Littleton, Colorado, NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Federal Airfield in California’s Silicon Valley, NASA Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, Penn State University, State College, Pennsylvania, Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, California, Honeybee Robotics, Brooklyn, New York, German Aerospace Center (DLR), Cologne, Germany, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Tokyo, Japan.

Dragonfly is the fourth mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program. New Frontiers is managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate Washington.

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