Sunday 16 December 2018

Nasa to fund 'helicopter' in hunt for life on Saturn's moon

The Dragonfly helicopter which will fly over the surface of Titan
The Dragonfly helicopter which will fly over the surface of Titan

Sarah Knapton

Nasa is to fund a helicopter mission to hunt for alien life on Saturn's largest moon - the ocean world of Titan.

The US space agency announced that the project, dubbed Dragonfly, has been selected as a finalist for a new expedition which will launch in the 2020s.

Titan is one of the best hopes for alien life in the Solar System because it is the only body, aside from Earth, with liquid oceans and lakes.

Although they are made of methane, rather than water, the moon is covered in rich organic material that is undergoing chemical processes that might be similar to those on early Earth, before life developed.

A discovery made earlier this year also found that Titan holds special molecules which could form cells and allow organisms to survive the perishingly cold temperatures of -290F. For the new mission, scientists plan to send a drone-like multi-rotor helicopter to fly over the surface, dropping down to take samples at dozens of different locations hundreds of kilometres apart.

It will only be the second time that a craft has landed on Titan. In 2004, Nasa's Huygens probe touched down. But it was not equipped to look for signs of life. The launch is currently scheduled for 2025, with the probe touching down in 2034.

Elizabeth Turtle, principal investigator for the Dragonfly mission, from Johns Hopkins University applied physics laboratory, who are overseeing the project, said it was clear that Titan has "the ingredients for life".

"Titan is a benign environment. There isn't a life-limiting aspect of the environment, in that sense, which is nice," she said.

"Dragonfly is designed to go back, build on what we've learned and answer the fundamental unknowns that remain about Titan."

The team named its helicopter Dragonfly because it resembles the four-winged insect which hops from place to place. The helicopter will travel hundreds of kilometres around Titan. At each landing site, Dragonfly will sample the surface and atmosphere with a suite of science instruments to assess how habitable the world is.

A second mission, known as Caesar, also secured funding. The project aims to return to the Rosetta comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko to collect samples, and return them to Earth.

Irish Independent

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