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NASA will send a nuclear-powered quadcopters drone to Titan

ByAdan Flannigan 2019-07-17 176

Sounds super sci-fi right? However, this is not a science fiction, but a reality that will happen soon. NASA has decided to launch a drone to Titan to explore the organic molecules that fall on the planet like rain and the liquid methane that converges into the rivers and lakes.

NASA will send a nuclear-powered quadcopters drone to Titan

Dragonfly drone, target Titan Titan

The mission, called "dragonfly", is part of NASA's new frontline series of missions. This series of missions aims to target the highest priority scientific detection targets in the solar system. The Juneau, which is detecting Jupiter, the new horizon number that is detecting the Kuiper Belt, and the Pluto, which is detecting the asteroid "Benu", are part of NASA's new front line mission.


NASA will send a nuclear-powered quadcopters drone to Titan


The dragonfly is a landing detector with a length of about 3 meters and a pair of coaxial propellers at each of the four corners to form a four-axis rotorcraft. It can land somewhere on the surface of Titan first, then rotate the rotor for short flights and travel to other locations for scientific exploration, up to 8 kilometers per flight.


It will be able to take photographs, collect samples of air and surface matter, determine their chemical composition, conduct meteorological and seismological measurements, and survey surrounding areas during the flight. Its mission goal is to determine the environment on Titan so that we can better understand this huge satellite and search for possible life-threatening elements there.

Familiar and strange world

NASA will send a nuclear-powered quadcopters drone to Titan 


For us on earth, Titan is a familiar and strange planet. Saturn is more than 14 billion kilometers away from us, so Titan is very cold. Water on the surface of the planet freezes into ice, harder than the granite on Earth. However, the atmosphere there is the same as Earth, mainly composed of nitrogen, about 50% thicker than the Earth's atmosphere, enough to maintain some interesting chemical reactions on the surface of the planet.


The late Cassini probe visited Titan several times, where it discovered sand dunes made of hydrocarbons, found signs of ice volcanic activity, and even detected the presence of liquid water in the underground of Titan. Among all these discoveries, however, the most striking is the huge lake of liquid methane and ethane found near the Titan Arctic.


Cassini used radar to penetrate the smoggy atmosphere of Titan and carried out detailed imaging observations on the surface of Titan. The results not only showed these lakes, but also found in the surrounding hills. The rivers of the lake. This shows that the methane on Titan is like the water on the earth, it will evaporate and rise, drifting in the atmosphere, and will form "rainfall", which will merge into rivers, lakes and seas.


Of course, the temperature there is only -180 °C. Don't think that the temperature is so low, everything is blocked by ice. The methane cycle, coupled with the participation of a large number of organic molecules, means that there are various interesting chemical processes on Titan that may be related to the birth of life.


And these are exactly what we want to figure out.

It will be 15 years later!

NASA will send a nuclear-powered quadcopters drone to Titan


This mission is currently scheduled to be launched in 2026 and will not land on that distant satellite until 2034. After all, there is still a long way to go to Saturn. It took seven years to build such a four-axis rotor landing, and although the time was a bit tight, it was still reasonable. Many instruments are based on existing successful designs, even batteries.


For the distant Titan, the intensity of the sunlight that can be received there is only about 1% of the intensity of the sun near the Earth. This is not considered to be a smoggy atmosphere, so solar panels are not a reasonable choice. The dragonfly drone will be powered by a nuclear battery, similar to the battery used on the Curiosity Rover. Specifically, it will be a radioisotope thermal motor that uses the heat generated by the decay of helium to generate electricity.


The most difficult part of the entire drone is probably to ensure that the propeller can work properly in the extremely cold atmosphere. However, even if this is difficult, Titan has a natural advantage: the atmosphere is thicker than the earth, and the surface gravity is only 1/7 of the Earth. It is still easy to fly. In addition, the wind speed on Titan is very low and should not cause too much problems.


The dragonfly drone will carry land on the sand dunes of the Shangri-La area near the equator of Titan. According to current planning, the scheduled working life is about two and a half years. If you want to fly from a landing site to a lake area near the North Pole, it may not be enough for two and a half years.


However, the team responsible for building the dragonfly is the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in the United States. The detectors they manufacture have always been known for their durability and durability. For example, they just flew over Kuiper's small celestial body at the beginning of this year. New horizon number.


I look forward to the dragonfly also being overdue on Titan, and one day there will be a chance to get close to the huge lake of liquid methane from the Titan Arctic. At that time, the lakes and mountains that it took back will make us collectively amazing.


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