Physicist Hopes to Lead Drone Mission to Titan
U of I’s Jason Barnes is part of Team Dragonfly, one of two teams competing for a real-world NASA mission
In 2025, a Dragonfly may have the opportunity to hop a rocket from Earth to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Named for its insect shape, Dragonfly is a drone-like rotorcraft specifically designed to sample Titan’s atmosphere and surface. With eight rotors, the dual-quadcopter will have the ability to fly from site to site on the alien moon, potentially traveling up to 10s of miles at a time.
Now Dragonfly is one step closer to possibly launching.
In December 2017, NASA announced the finalists of its New Frontiers Program, narrowing the competition from 12 teams to two, including Dragonfly. University of Idaho Associate Professor Jason Barnes is a founding member of the Dragonfly project. He serves as the deputy principal investigator of the international team, which is led by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) and includes 35 co-investigators. The other mission team, led by Cornell University and managed by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, plans to sample a comet.
The two teams selected for continued study each received $4 million from NASA to mature their mission concepts during the remainder of 2018. In mid-2019 NASA plans to select a single mission to launch no earlier than 2024, and NASA will support the development of the mission with up to $850 million of funding.
“To be honest I was terrifically surprised that we made the final two,” said Barnes, who is in the Department of Physics in the College of Science. “Our mission is exciting and the first of its kind, which is not something engineers and reviewers always like to hear.”
Why Walk, When You Can Fly?
Titan joins Venus, Earth and Mars as the only places in the solar system with substantive atmospheres and solid surfaces. And compared to Venus and Mars, Titan’s atmospheric properties are closest to Earth’s. Titan’s dense atmosphere and low gravity actually make flying easier than it is on Earth.
Pictured above: Dragonfly is a dual-quadcopter lander that would take advantage of the environment on Titan to fly to multiple locations, some hundreds of miles apart, to sample materials and determine surface composition to investigate Titan's organic chemistry and habitability, monitor atmospheric and surface conditions, image landforms to investigate geological processes, and perform seismic studies. Photo Provided by Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
Sending a quadcopter to a distant moon is a fairly daring idea, Barnes said, but he thinks the design will allow researchers to answer questions that would be difficult for a stationary probe or a rolling rover. Titan has a smoggy atmosphere, so researchers don’t know if the terrain would limit a driven vehicle. Flying increases Dragonfly’s mobility, allowing the team to efficiently sample a diverse set of locations across a much greater area, said Shannon MacKenzie, who worked in Barnes’ lab until she received her doctorate from U of I in 2017 and serves as a co-investigator on Dragonfly.
Team Dragonfly will spend 2018 perfecting their designs, planning individual investigations and experiments, and incorporating ideas from the proposal’s reviewers. In addition, they will test some of Dragonfly’s components at Titan temperatures, and continue to test a half-scale model built by Pennsylvania State University.
“Everything has to work the first time. You can’t send someone up with a wrench,” Barnes said. “The next year gives us time to drill down to the next level of engineering specificity."
About NASA’s New Frontiers Program
In the early 2000s, NASA created the New Frontiers Program to enhance the exploration of our solar system. The space community has labeled certain exploration objectives as top priorities. New Frontiers missions tackle these goals. A principal investigator, who is often associated with a research institute or university, leads the project, and the team comprises scientists and engineers from small business, industry, government, and higher education.
New Frontiers missions are considered medium-sized projects and are larger enterprises than NASA’s Discovery missions. Teams must design projects that balance the high costs of space exploration with the production of new scientific insights.
The current set of proposals represent the fourth generation of the contest, and the winner will launch in the mid-2020s. The New Frontiers projects selected in the past are the Juno investigation of Jupiter; New Horizons’ exploration of Pluto, its moons and the Kuiper Belt; and OSIRIS-REx, which will take samples from an asteroid.
Dragonfly’s Destination: an “Ocean World”
In 2004, the Cassini spacecraft gave researchers their first close look at Titan during its study of the Saturn system. Cassini also sent the Huygens probe to the moon’s surface, where it gathered information for 72 minutes. The moon appeared to have rain, rivers, lakes and seas, although the liquid is likely ethane and methane. Cassini observations also indicate that a layer of ice covers Titan’s surface, and that this icy crust hides a global ocean.
At the equator, gigantic dunes sit atop the ice. Instead of being made of sand, the dunes are likely piles of complex organic compounds called hydrocarbons. The complex hydrocarbons form when sunlight breaks apart atmospheric methane and the resulting bits and pieces combine, then fall to Titan’s surface. But scientists haven’t been able to discern the exact composition of the material on the surface.
“If you were to ask me what exactly is on the surface of Titan, I wouldn’t be able to tell you,” MacKenzie said. “The atmosphere that’s blocking the way is probably the source for much of the organic gunk that’s down there.”
Enter Dragonfly. The quadcopter is designed to sample the icy crust and hydrocarbon sands. It is outfitted with a vacuum to suck up samples, a drill for coring, and instruments that will precisely identify the chemical composition of samples. Dragonfly should answer many of the questions raised by the Cassini mission, MacKenzie said.
MacKenzie is one of 35 co-investigators working on the mission, a position that is uncommon for a doctoral student to earn. A member of Dragonfly’s science team, MacKenzie helps determine the mission’s questions and design experiments to answer those questions. Since she graduated from U of I, MacKenzie continues to work on Dragonfly in a postdoctoral position with the principal investigator of the Dragonfly mission, Elizabeth Turtle at APL.
MacKenzie said that there are several possible scenarios where liquid water could periodically come in contact with hydrocarbons at Titan’s surface, creating a concoction similar to the primordial soup that led to life on Earth. By studying Titan’s chemistry in action, researchers may be able to answer questions about how the building blocks of life initially formed on Earth.
“One of the high-level goals is to understand what makes a planet or moon habitable and what chemical processes led to the development of life,” said Turtle. “Titan has been doing chemistry experiments for billions of years and basically the goal of Dragonfly is to go down to the surface and collect the results.”
In addition, Dragonfly will take atmospheric chemistry samples, meteorological measurements, and pictures of the landscape. The quadcopter will also carry an onboard seismometer to record any Titan seismic activity.
Far From Home
Landings are always white-knuckle events for researchers involved in space exploration. Like a Mars lander, Dragonfly would fly through space, slam through the atmosphere with a heat shield, and be slowed down with parachutes. While a Mars lander also requires rockets to slow its descent, Dragonfly would ditch its parachute and fly to Titan’s surface. Thanks to observations by Cassini-Huygens, the team has identified safe landing zones, as is done for Mars landers using satellite pictures.
Once within the landing zone, “we have cameras and onboard systems that can look for and identify a safe landing site and put down,” Barnes said. “It has to do all this onboard, because we can’t be joy-sticking it.”
Unlike its insect doppelganger, Dragonfly will not be buzzing about continuously. The quadcopter will thoroughly sample each landing site before zipping off to a new location. Moves will likely occur once per Titan day — about every two weeks on Earth.
“We have lots of interesting targets to go next within hopping distance,” MacKenzie said. “We have a plan for what we want to do, but we’re adaptable, which is pretty exciting. We’d be able to explore.”
If NASA fully funds Dragonfly, the primary mission would last for over two years. However, the nuclear-powered quadcopter could conceivably continue working for much longer. Dragonfly would launch in April 2025 and arrive in December 2034.
“It takes a long time to get to the outer solar system if you are trying to get there on the cheap,” said Barnes with a laugh. “I’ll be 60 by the time the mission is over.”
Article by Leigh Cooper, University Communications and Marketing
Article published in March 2018