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Could Saturn’s moon sustain life? A NASA mission powered by Idaho energy will find out.


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BOISE — The search for life on other planets continues, and it has Idaho connections.

Sending a quadcopter to Saturn. Exploring the origins of life. Looking for other habitable planets. These are the things scientists dream about, and they might get more answers because of a new mission to explore Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.

NASA announced Thursday that it selected Dragonfly as the next mission in its New Frontiers program. Launching in April 2025 and arriving on Saturn’s surface in 2036, the rotorcraft lander will explore the habitability of Titan’s methane atmosphere and surface.

“Titan’s surface looks a lot like Earth’s and it is shaped by the same process. It is shaped by rainfall — rain hits and collects in lakes. But instead of liquid rain, it is liquid methane,” Dr. Jason Barnes said in a phone interview with the Idaho Statesman. Barnes is an associate professor of physics at the University of Idaho and deputy principal investigator on project Dragonfly.

Titan’s surface is extremely cold: 90 degrees Kelvin, or minus-298 Fahrenheit, allowing methane to exist in a liquid form.

Titan is one of only four places in the solar system with a solid surface and an atmosphere. Earth, Mars and Venus are the others. But according to Barnes, Titan is the most similar to Earth.

“Water makes up clouds on Earth’s atmosphere, but methane clouds are Titan’s. As the atmosphere is irradiated by the sun, the sun breaks methane into radical carbon molecules, which as they fall to the surface could mix with water to make organic compounds like the beginning of life here on Earth,” Barnes said.

Dragonfly also will be looking at what lies below Titan’s surface.

Dragonfly is a rotorcraft lander part of NASA’s New Frontiers program with a mission to explore Titan’s environment to sample materials and determine surface composition in different geologic settings and the origins of life. | John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory

“There could be a liquid water ocean 100 kilometers below the surface. And the conditions could be just right for pre-biotic life,” Barnes said.

Dragonfly will study where the methane comes from, where methane goes and the seismology of Titan’s surface, and take pictures to look at the moon’s geologic history.

“Dragonfly has cameras to look at surface geology. To look at what are the geologic processes, to look at geologic history,” Barnes said. “There may be layers like the Grand Canyon and we could see the history from the past 4 billion years.”

Added NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, in a press release: “Visiting this mysterious ocean world could revolutionize what we know about life in the universe. This cutting-edge mission would have been unthinkable even just a few years ago, but we’re now ready for Dragonfly’s amazing flight.”

The nuclear battery energy source for Dragonfly will be made right here in the Gem State, at the Idaho National Laboratory.

“Titan is 10 times further away from the sun than Earth, with 100 times less intense sunlight, so solar panels are 1,000 times less effective on Titan than on Earth,” Barnes said. “To power Dragonfly we would need solar panels the size of a tennis court, and that is just not practical.”

The nuclear battery will be made of Plutonium-238, a less-radioactive version of the traditional nuclear energy source. The battery will be made of plutonium-dioxide bricks — when one side of the brick is heated, the other side cools, creating an electrical current to energize Dragonfly. Plutonium-238 has a half-life of 95 years, so this nuclear battery should easily keep going for the duration of the mission. According to Barnes, similar batteries were used for the Voyager mission to Pluto and the Cassini mission to Saturn.

Next steps include refining the concept for exactly which computer chips, software and materials will be used. Researchers will then build a flight model to test at NASA’s Cape Canaveral. Earth and Titan have similar atmospheres, so practice flights will mimic the situations Dragonfly will encounter on Saturn’s moon.

“This mission is the adventure of a lifetime, and we only get one shot to make this work,” Barnes said.

This article was originally published in the Idaho Statesman. It is used here with permission.