Editor's note: A version of this was previously published on the author’s website.
Jani Radebaugh of Brigham Young University has been named to assist in an ambitious quest for the type of chemistry that might lead to life ("pre-biotic chemistry") — and possibly signs of life itself — on Saturn's moon Titan. On June 27 NASA announced the Dragonfly project, saying the probe will fly in 2026 and arrive at Titan in 2034.
BYU posted a note on the university's internet front page that Radebaugh will be working on the project.
This writer discussed Dragonfly when it was just a proposal, back in March 2017. Blog 9 asked readers to "Imagine a manmade 'Dragonfly' of a robotic laboratory churning through the orange atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan, alighting wherever scientists want it to land. It could skim over lakes, photograph rugged river valleys that cut through mountains, and settle onto the landscape to sample alien chemistry."
The proposal is now firmly on its way to actuality, with NASA’s announcement that "our next destination in the solar system is the unique, richly organic world Titan. Advancing our search for the building blocks of life, the Dragonfly mission will fly multiple sorties to sample and examine sites around Saturn’s icy moon." The otherworldly aircraft, which will operate like a drone with a set of eight rotors, will fly around the moon and sample sites from dunes to the floor of an impact crater where liquid water and complex organic chemicals may have existed for tens of thousands of years.
The space agency adds, "Titan is an analog to the very early Earth, and can provide clues to how life may have arisen on our planet. … (Dragonfly) also will investigate the moon’s atmospheric and surface properties and its subsurface ocean and liquid reservoirs. Additionally, instruments will search for chemical evidence of past or extant life."
The National Earth Science Teachers Association notes that Titan has a thick atmosphere and its diameter is 3,200 miles, larger than the planet Mercury and the demoted-planet Pluto. The only larger moon is Jupiter's Ganymede, at 3,270 miles in diameter. These are far larger than Earth’s moon, whose diameter is 2,160 miles. Titan is the only moon with a substantial atmosphere; its surface and atmosphere are rife with oily organics and liquid methane falls as rain.
Radebaugh said she is a science team member in the Dragonfly project, one of about 20 scientists who are tasked with learning as much as they can about Titan's history and present conditions.
"My expertise is in the surface landscapes and geology, so I will be studying images returned by the spacecraft both far away and up close," she said. Her fondest hope is to see images of a handful of Titan sand up close, because sand tells a lot about processes and landscapes, even those not close to the sand's location.
"Second, in my wildest dreams, I imagine finding convincing biosignatures, revealing that Earth is not the only planet to have hosted life. But that is a distant hope!"
BYU has linked to a video in which Radebaugh discusses the importance of learning about Titan.
On the surface, she said, "there is erosion, there are lakes and dunes and mountains. So there are a lot of similarities between Titan and Earth. ... The main thing we want to do with this airplane (Dragonfly) is to study this diversity of Titan." The atmospheric pressure is the same as this planet's, she said, yet the atmosphere is four times as dense. The slight gravity and heavy atmosphere may combine to make the moon imminently flyable.
"This is the only other body in the solar system besides Earth with actual liquid sitting inside of lake basins, but because Titan is 10 times as far away from the sun as the Earth, it is freezing cold, and so the lakes there are actually made of liquid methane," she said.