NASA’s latest probe sounds incredible. Generally known as Dragonfly, it’s a dual-rotor quadcopter (technically an octocopter, even more technically an X8 octocopter); it is roughly the scale of a compact car; it is entirely autonomous; it is nuclear powered, and it’ll hover above the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan.
However, Elizabeth Turtle, the mission’s principal investigator at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, insists that that is a pretty tame space probe, as these things go.
“There’s not plenty of new technology,” she says.
Quadcopters (even X8 octocopters) are for sale on Amazon nowadays. Self-driving technology is coming along rapidly. Nuclear power is harder to come by. However, the team plans to make use of the same type of system that runs NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars. Everything that is going into Dragonfly is already being used elsewhere.
Which isn’t the concept of a nuclear-powered drone flying around a moon of Saturn does not make the sound crazy.
“Nearly everyone who will get exposed to Dragonfly has the same thought process. The first time you see it, you assume: ‘You got to be kidding, that is crazy,’ ” says Doug Adams, the mission’s spacecraft systems engineer. However, he says, “finally, you come to realize that this is a highly executable mission.”
NASA reached that conclusion when, after plenty of careful research, it gave Dragonfly the green light earlier this summer. “This revolutionary mission would have been unimaginable just a few short years ago,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine mentioned when the roughly $1 billion projects were selected in June. “An excellent nation does great things.”
For Shannon MacKenzie, a postdoc on the mission, no destination might be higher than Titan. The biggest moon of Saturn, it has dunes, mountains, gullies, and even rivers and lakes although, on Titan, it is so cold the lakes are filled with liquid methane, not water.