NASA’s Dragonfly mission will land Saturn’s largest moon on a land of sand dunes and shattered ice rocks, according to a new analysis of radar images from the Cassini spacecraft.
Launched in 2027, Dragonfly is a helicopter that will arrive in 2034 and explore Titan From the air. Its range would be much greater than that of a wheeled rover, with Dragonfly being able to cover about 10 miles (16 kilometres) on each half-hour journey, According to NASA. Over the course of its two-year mission, it will explore an area hundreds of miles or kilometers wide. However, before taking to the skies on its own, Dragonfly must first reach Titan under a canopy, a smooth landing on frozen terrain hidden from easy visibility by the thicket. hydrocarbon Smog filling the atmosphere of the moon.
Dragonfly’s landing site will be Shangri-La Dune field, near the 50-mile (80-kilometer) wide crater, Silk. This area was photographed by NASA Cassini spacecraft During her mission to Saturn Between 2004 and 2017, a team of scientists led by planetary scientist Léa Bonnefoy of Cornell University took a fresh look at that data to produce the most accurate assessment of Dragonfly’s proposed landing site to date.
Bonnevoy said in statement (Opens in a new tab). “The dragonfly will land in a dry, tropical region of Titan. It rains liquid methane sometimes, but it’s more like a desert on Earth where there are sand dunes, some small mountains and an impact crater.”
Selk is an interesting site. Estimated to be geologically young, perhaps a few hundred million years old, the impact that caused it to carve out would have melted the local ice, spurring interactions between fresh liquid water and organic molecules in the hydrocarbon soup on Titan’s surface. Astrobiologists are particularly interested in the chemistry of prebiotics—the chemistry that involves carbon-rich molecules but is not mediated by living organisms—that would have resulted.
However, Cassini’s radar images of the region are limited, with resolutions at best 1,000 feet (300 meters) per pixel. “There are probably a lot of small rivers and landscapes that we haven’t been able to see,” Bonnevoy said.
Scientists know that such rivers already exist on Titan, thanks to the European Space Agency Huygens Lander, which was anchored to the deck of the Cassini ship before its parachute landing on Titan’s surface in January 2005. These rivers, however, are not filled with liquid water—minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 179 degrees Celsius) too cold for that. Instead, methane and liquid ethane rain down from the frozen sky and wash rocky glaciers into tributaries of rivers that feed large lakes.
However, what the Cassini images provided were multiple viewing angles. Each time she flew over Titan — she enjoyed 127 close approaches to the Moon during her mission — she viewed the sights in the Dragonfly landing site area from various angles, ranging from inclinations of 5 degrees to 72 degrees.
By analyzing how the terrain produces shadows of varying shapes based on the viewing angle, Bonnefoy’s team was able to determine the terrain of the area within the limits of image resolution, and found no major rendering-stopping obstacles that Dragonfly needed to avoid.
The scientists also calculated the height of the wire crater rim, and found that it varied from less than 650 feet (200 meters) in some parts up to 2,000 feet (600 meters), which is higher than expected, indicating a less eroded crater rim.
The research was published on August 30 in Planetary Science Journal (Opens in a new tab).
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