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NASA excitedly confirms it will fly a sci-fi craft on distant moon


Folks, it’s happening.

NASA announced its unprecedented Dragonfly mission — which will fly a car-sized craft with eight spinning rotors around Saturn’s moon Titan — is confirmed for flight. The mission, in advanced stages of its design and fabrication, has an approved budget, ride (a heavy-lift rocket), and launch date in 2028.

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“Dragonfly is a spectacular science mission with broad community interest, and we are excited to take the next steps on this mission,” Nicky Fox, who heads the space agency’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement. “Exploring Titan will push the boundaries of what we can do with rotorcraft outside of Earth.”

Titan, located some 880 million miles beyond Earth, is a fascinating world. Larger than our moon, it’s the only moon in our solar system that harbors a thick atmosphere and bodies of surface liquid — though the sprawling seas on Titan are composed of liquid methane, not water. Meanwhile, Titan’s icy dunes are teeming with the organic ingredients needed for life (as we know it) to develop. That’s where Dragonfly will repeatedly land, take off, and explore over some three to five years.

It’s a realm of great scientific intrigue because the pristine surface hosts the ancient, “prebiotic” conditions that could have provided the brew for life to eventually form in our solar system. It’s like a primordial Earth.

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“This really is the only place in the solar system that has this kind of chemistry,” Elizabeth “Zibi” Turtle, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and the principal investigator of the mission, told Mashable in 2023.

This image from NASA's Cassini spacecraft shows the sun reflecting off Titan's northern methane seas.

This image from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft shows the sun reflecting off Titan’s northern methane seas.
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Univ. Arizona / Univ. Idaho

A conception of Dragonfly zooming above Titan's dunes.

A conception of Dragonfly zooming above Titan’s dunes.
Credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins APL / Steve Gribben

What’s more, while the nuclear-powered spacecraft identifies what organic molecules are on Titan, and how they formed, the mission can also address whether it’s a habitable world (meaning whether it could host living organisms) and look for potential signatures of life.

The deep space mission, like many such endeavors, saw ballooning costs that resulted in budget problems and delays. The now $3.35-billion spaceflight (total including operations) was beset by “additional costs due to the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain increases, and the results of an in-depth design iteration,” NASA explained.

But now the cosmic deal is sealed. After a six-year journey, the Saturn-bound craft is expected to land on Titan in a decade, in 2034. With the moon’s low-gravity and thick atmosphere — which make it easy to generate lift — the buzzing craft will take flight to disparate locations on this frigid world.





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