Smothered in a hazy atmosphere that hides shallow lakes of liquid hydrocarbons, Titan is a strange world we can’t wait to get a closer look at.
This is why NASA is preparing to launch in 2027 a robotic ship with rotors to observe the landscape. Thus, we have an idea of what kind of landscape awaits NASA’s Dragonfly mission.
Set to reach Saturn’s largest moon in 2034, the lander will eventually settle in the Shangri-la dune field near Selk Crater. The researchers describe it as a “scientifically outstanding area” worthy of exploration, about which we still have much to learn.
A new study maps six specific parts of the region, identifying it as a place likely to be covered by sand dunes and broken and frozen terrain. The work will provide a basis for models and hypotheses that can be tested by Dragonfly once the probe lands, it says ScienceAlert.
“A scientifically outstanding area”
“Dragonfly will land in a dry, equatorial region on Titan – a frigid world with a thick, hydrocarbon-rich atmosphere,” says planetary scientist Léa Bonnefoy of Cornell University in New York.
“Sometimes it rains liquid methane, but it’s more like a desert on Earth – where you have dunes, a few small mountains and an impact crater. We look carefully at the landing site, its structure and surface.”
This close look involved a detailed analysis of the radar images captured by the Cassini probe: by analyzing how the radar signals change and reflect from different angles, the researchers were able to make assumptions about certain parts of Titan’s surface.
The team also considered data collected by the Huygens probe, which landed south of the new potential landing site. To date, many of these details, such as the height and shape of Selk Crater, are estimates, meaning there is still much analysis to be done until 2034.
Titan, comparable to early Earth
“In the next few years, we’re going to see a lot of attention paid to the Selk Crater region,” says planetary scientist Alex Hayes of Cornell University.
The Dragonfly will be what is called a rotorcraft; a helicopter-like invention that will operate in a drone-like manner when it reaches the landing zone. It is planned to weigh around 450 kilograms, with eight rotors that are each about one meter in diameter.
In Titan’s low-wind, low-gravity atmosphere, Dragonfly will travel at a maximum speed of 36 kilometers per hour, accumulating increasingly long flights away from the initial landing site.
Since Titan is in many ways comparable to the early Earth, scientists hope to learn more about our own planet. Ultimately, our understanding of Titan is expected to grow considerably with the arrival of Dragonfly, just as the Curiosity rover has shown us much more about Mars.
The research was published in Planetary Science Journal.