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NASA announces mission to Titan

NASA today announced that it has approved a new mission to Titan, called Dragonfly, that will be a rotorcraft able to fly from place to place.

Dragonfly will launch in 2026 as part of NASA’s New Frontiers program, and is expected to arrive at Titan in 2034. ‘Dragonfly is a bold, game-changing way to explore the solar system,’ said APL Director Ralph Semmel. ‘This mission is a visionary combination of creativity and technical risk-taking that will help us unravel some of the most critical mysteries of the universe — including, possibly, the keys to our origins.’

Initially, Dragonfly will carry out a 2.7-year mission to explore different sites across Titan, including dunes and impact craters. Observations from the Cassini mission indicate these areas once held liquid water and complex organic materials. The dual quadcopter will sample these organic surface materials and measure their composition in effort to characterize the large moon’s habitability.

Dragonfly will first touchdown in an equatorial area known as the ‘Shangri-La’ dune fields, which have been compared to the Namibian dunes in southern Africa.

It will then complete ‘leapfrog’ flights of around 5 miles (8km) each to hop to other areas, stopping to take samples from each site.

I hate to throw cold water on this magnificent and ambitious mission, but I will not be at all surprised if it ends up costing more than expected and ends up getting delayed. NASA’s track record in the past decade with big projects on the cutting edge, as this appears to be, has been abysmal. Worse, I have seen little at NASA to make me thing any of this has changed enough to ease my mind for the next decade.

I hope I am wrong, because the concept is wonderful, and the target, Titan, is a critical solar system location that must be explored.

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  • Andi

    From the Washington Post article on the same topic:

    ” It will be powered by heat from radioactive plutonium, much like NASA’s intrepid Mars rovers. ”

    Really? What were those solar panels for then?

  • Andi

    Ok, so Curiosity is powered by an RTG. What threw me was their use of the plural “rovers”

  • Matt in AZ

    The is a second RTG-powered Mars rover due to launch next year, but that one cannot be described as “intrepid” just yet.

  • mike shupp

    Hmmm. There’s a nominal cost cap of 850 million dollars, exclusive of launch vehicle and mission operations, on New Frontiers missions, but that was established in 2016. So now it’s 2019, and launch is scheduled for 2026. Three years of inflation at a 2% rate might run to another 50 million or so, ten years to about 200 million. Let’s note that inflation hasn’t been that high most of the last several years.

    So there’s opportunity to cover some cost growth by blaming inflation — but not a whole lot. A launch vehicle hasn’t been picked yet; I can imagine NASA picking a SLS early in its planning, at one billion bucks (or more), then downgrading to a Falcon Heavy at maybe half that cost but adding a year or two to travel time. Also, I’d imagine there’s some uncertainty in how big a power supply will be needed, and plutonium for RTGs is not cheap — this could be a 100 million dollar cost by itself.

    That said, a spacecraft flitting about Titan is a sweet idea, and I can’t imagine this provoking partisan debate, so the mission would likely survive under Republican or Democratic administrations unless cost growth became extreme — from under 2 billion to better than 6 billion dollars let’s say, That might be enough to be visible to Congress critters.

  • Richard M

    In fairness, the three previous New Frontiers program missions – New Horizons, Juno, and OSIRIS-REx – actually seem to have done a pretty good job of adhering to budget. We have not seen any of the cost creep that’s been all too evident in space telescopes or some flagship missions (let alone SLS!!).

    They’ve generally done well on schedule – Juno *was* delayed two years, but that was because of a budget crunch at NASA.

    The risk that Dragonfly might defy the program pattern might be higher because this is, as Zerbuchen has admitted, a higher risk architecture than the program has selected in the past. Indeed, the safe bet going into this final downselect was that NASA would pick CAESAR rather than Dragonfly for just this reason (and of course Steve Squyres’ role in running it). I’m actually pleased to see New Frontiers picking a higher-risk/higher return mission like Dragonfly. And the PR impact of a mission like this could be greater than anything NASA has seen in a robotic mission in a long time – think of the video being beamed back of a nuclear-powered drone flying over the mountains and hydrocarbon seas of a cloud-capped alien world a billion miles away…

    On the whole, the New Frontiers and Discovery programs seem to have the best track record of project management and procurement at NASA. My suspicion is that this is in no small part because their smaller size results in the laboratories being allowed greater autonomy in running them, and also makes them less attractive for congressional pork kibitzing.

  • Richard M: It is exactly because of the higher risk of this mission that I expect overruns and budget delays. The mission reminds me too much of James Webb, which took a technological leap of faith that was far greater than NASA’s capabilities at the time, because of an overconfidence created by the remarkable overall success of Hubble, including its magnificent repair.

    I worry that Dragonfly is another example of overconfidence at NASA. The agency and the scientists and engineers involved in their planetary program have routinely done well. This mission seems however a far riskier attempt than anything they have tried in the past.

    For example, the first rotocopter to another planet, the one on the Mars 2020 rover, hasn’t even flown yet. Might NASA have waited to see if that worked first?

  • Richard M

    “For example, the first rotocopter to another planet, the one on the Mars 2020 rover, hasn’t even flown yet. Might NASA have waited to see if that worked first?”

    It is an interesting question, but I do wonder how applicable the lessons from the Mars 2020 Helicopter demonstrator will actually be: Mars surface atmospheric pressure is only 1/100th that of Earth; whereas Titan is about 50% higher than Earth at 1.5 bars. The result is that Mars is a much tougher place to fly anything like this, whereas Titan is much easier. In fact, it will take Dragonfly only 1/32 the energy to fly that it would on Earth. The Mars copter is also a radically different design.

    The one new technology in use here is the dual quad copter. It seems New Frontiers planners feel that the recent advances in this technology (mainly commercial) retires enough of the risk. JWST’s problem was mission and tech creep in so *many* areas.

    I think I’m still happy that NASA took the higher risk higher return option in picking Dragonfly over CAESAR – especially since the money at stake ($800-850 million) is fairly modest, much less than with a flagship class mission or major space telescope. Consider Mars Insight, which you just updated us on: Yes, the HP3 mole may well be a bust now; but the rest of the instruments are working well, and there should still be plenty of science from the SEIS – ironically, the one instrument they had so many problems with in final development.

    It would help if NASA decides to send it out on a Falcon Heavy or even a Starship when the time comes – not only big money savings, but a much short flight time and fewer gravity assists, which also retires risk, too.

  • Edward

    Richard M wrote: “I do wonder how applicable the lessons from the Mars 2020 Helicopter demonstrator will actually be: Mars surface atmospheric pressure is only 1/100th that of Earth; whereas Titan is about 50% higher than Earth at 1.5 bars. The result is that Mars is a much tougher place to fly anything like this, whereas Titan is much easier. In fact, it will take Dragonfly only 1/32 the energy to fly that it would on Earth. The Mars copter is also a radically different design.

    I’m not sure that the aerodynamics is as much in question as is the control method. Is the “artificial intelligence” mature enough to work autonomously? It seems to me that this technology is still young, and it has not yet been well tested in the field, either here on Earth or especially at remote planets, moons, or asteroids.

    I wouldn’t feel so blasé about losing a mission that costs $800 million. This is not necessarily seen by many as a modest amount. When the billion-dollar Mars Observer was lost in the early 1990s, NASA changed strategies from sending large, expensive probes to Mars every four years (or so) to sending multiple smaller, cheaper probes at every transit opportunity, occurring every other year. The thinking was that losing an occasional cheap probe would not be as emotionally traumatic for the nation as losing the occasional expensive probe.

    However, when Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander were lost in 1999, emotions ran high, again, and the “faster, smaller, cheaper” philosophy was mocked.

    JWST and WFIRST may have difficulties in budget and technical development that Dragonfly may not have, but SLS is a complete embarrassment. SLS is now nine years into development, and it is still at least another year away from first test flight. This is taking twice as long to develop as the Constellation project’s Ares rocket, which did its first test flight in only six years — yet SLS is using mostly decades-old, tried-and-true hardware from the Space Shuttle. Somehow, NASA’s management seems to have lost its ability to do its easy projects within budget and in a timely manner.

    Perhaps this is because the previous president refocused NASA in directions different from its actual mission, or maybe it is because “Regrettably, strategic confusion currently abounds in the American civil space program,” as Paul Spudis said in his book The Value of the Moon. It could be that these are the same thing.

    It may be possible that the current president has focused NASA, once again, on its mission, or maybe he has set a less confusing strategy for NASA, but the GAO is not presenting much confidence in NASA’s management, even under this new president. Dragonfly may not fare any better than many of NASA’s other current projects.

    “How the mighty have fallen,” the saying goes. NASA has lost its ability to manage, Russia has lost its ability to control rocket quality, and ESA has lost its leadership role in commercial launches. There are now low-budget, small, upstart startups that are doing for a profit what it used to take large, wealthy governments to do at great expense — embarrassingly, these same governments seem unable to do them anymore. These startups are even making profits by developing hardware and methods that the mighty governments had (unwisely) abandoned at the idea stage.

  • Richard M


    GAO is not presenting much confidence in NASA’s management, even under this new president. Dragonfly may not fare any better than many of NASA’s other current projects.

    I don’t have much confidence in NASA’s project management, either. But New Frontiers and Discovery missions are mostly managed by the centers (JPL, APL, Ames et al), and for now they still seem to do a decent job of it. And that’s why I feel more optimism about Dragonfly than I do, say Europa Clipper (let alone JWST or SLS!).

    The use of drone copter technology is really a testament to the innovation of the private sector, which is where most of the work has been done. I’m not an expert in the field but my sense is that we have reached a point where it’s worth the risk. Anyway, they don’t launch until 2026. Plenty of time to test the heck out of it.

    Perhaps CAESAR would have been the safer bet. But Titan is a much more interesting place to explore.

  • Edward

    Richard M,
    Please be careful of overconfidence. Mars Observer, Mars Climate Orbiter, and Mars Polar Lander were JPL projects, too. None of them seemed to have much challenge to do what they were doing when they failed. Midcourse corrections are supposed to be routine, and the Polar Lander’s landing seemed routine, too.

    On the other hand, JPL was also responsible for some successful unique methods, such as landing Pathfinder on Mars with airbags to cushion the impact and landing Curiosity with a crane. On the third hand, the gripping hand, JPL labeled Curiosity’s admittedly risky landing as “7 Minutes of Terror.”

    You wrote: “I’m not an expert in the field but my sense is that we have reached a point where it’s worth the risk.

    Maybe, but Robert’s point was to reduce risk by having a demonstration flight, first. This is NASA’s usual practice, which makes sense for them to use, since they invented the Technology Readiness Level methodology. The idea is to reduce risk by having a certain level of maturity before risking hundreds of millions of dollars on using a new technology in space. This is how NASA is supposed to assess whether it is worth the risk.

    So, if it is not ready in 2026, then its launch will have to be delayed, sending it behind schedule and over budget. That is another risk that NASA considers when assessing a project.

    The cost of these risks is harder to see. When a probe is lost during a mission, that is a loss that is seen. However, when a probe does not get funded because another project went over budget, that is a loss that is not seen.

    Economist Bastiat pointed out that terrible mistakes can be made when we do not consider the factors that are not seen:
    It is not seen that as our shopkeeper has spent six francs upon one thing, he cannot spend them upon another. It is not seen that if he had not had a window to replace, he would, perhaps, have replaced his old shoes, or added another book to his library. In short, he would have employed his six francs in some way, which this accident has prevented.

    The terrible conclusion that comes from seeing that the glazier has more work than he would have had otherwise:
    Suppose it cost six francs to repair the damage, and you say that the accident brings six francs to the glazier’s trade — that it encourages that trade to the amount of six francs[.] … [W]hat will you say, disciples of good M. F. Chamans, who has calculated with so much precision how much trade would gain by the burning of Paris, from the number of houses it would be necessary to rebuild?

    In our case, spending money on a risky program may not only lose us the science we could have gained from that program, but it may also lose us the science we could have gained from the less risky programs that were not funded.

    So, shouldn’t we put the risk onto the lower cost, lower risk, Martian technology-demonstration helicopter and save the Titan quadrocopter for after we are more assured that it will bring us value for our money? It looks for all the world that we are sending a second, very expensive technology demonstrator to Titan.

    Maybe APL will make it work on time and on budget, but was it good management for NASA to choose it now rather than wait for more assurance of a success that comes on schedule and on budget? This is why NASA management of Constellation, JWST, SLS, and WFIRST is (are?) relevant to this discussion.

    In engineering and in business, when you get into trouble, stop taking risks and return to the fundamentals. This is how Jobs saved Apple, a couple of decades ago. It may be why Constellation and Orion-SLS looked like Apollo, until Gateway came along.

  • Richard M

    Hello Edward,

    Maybe, but Robert’s point was to reduce risk by having a demonstration flight, first.

    I see the point, but the question is: Where would you do it?

    No other planet in the Solar System has an atmosphere like Titan. The closest, in fact, is . . . Earth. And Earth has 7 times the gravity.

    But if you mean that a rover or lander should have been sent to Titan instead, with a small (battery powered) quadcopter demonstrator tagging along, a la Mars 2020’s helicopter demonstrator, it is a reasonable argument – though it would come at the cost of having to wait at least 10-15 years or more for the results, given travel times to Saturn (even with a Falcon Heavy).

    I think that if APL had not had a solid track record of NASA exploration projects over the past two decades (NEAR, ACE, TIMED, CONTOUR, MESSENGER, Van Allen Probes, New Horizons, the Parker Solar Probe, STEREO), it would be easier for me – and, I’m guessing, for the New Frontiers planners themselves – to second guess this award.

  • Edward

    Richard M,
    You seem fixated on aerodynamics rather than software. The Mars 2020’s mission is not to test Martian aerodynamics but the autonomy of a flier, which is why the engineers were satisfied with the one short flight that they made using a cable to offloads some of the weight in order to make up for the reduced Martian gravity. The flier is a software technology demonstrator. There is plenty of trouble that it can get into, and the objective of the test on Mars is to make sure that it avoids such trouble on its own. If the flier fails, the mission can continue with little loss of information or mission objectives.

    No matter what happens, Titan will still be an interesting place to explore even after Mars 2020 demonstrates its flier’s autonomy, or even 10 or 15 years after that. My concern is that we rush into it now and risk losing this Titan mission as well as other opportunities. The cost is in more than just dollars, it is in lost opportunities for other exploration.

    What science would we have obtained had we funded successful missions rather than the failed Mars Observer, Mars Climate Orbiter, and Mars Polar Lander; or had the Space Shuttle operated as well and inexpensively as expected to give us 24 missions each year (or the 60 originally promised in the late 1960s), the ISS cost the original $32 billion (including shuttle flights) that Congress balked at in the mid 1980s, Constellation worked on schedule and on budget, and the same for SLS; or if JWST hadn’t gone long and over budget (hint: we could have compared simultaneous JWST and Hubble data); and what will we miss now that WFIRST is showing signs of becoming its own fiasco?

    I’m getting a lot tired of the things that are not supposed to be risky failing to produce results in a timely, frugal way.

    We now even have that stupid ((F)LOP) Gateway (to Nowhere) that has about as much support as the failed Asteroid Redirect Mission, which even the asteroid scientists didn’t support. Gateway’s apparent mission is to add cost and risk to our return to the Moon.

    NASA hemorrhages money on failures, and few people seem to care. Indeed, delays, cost overruns, and risky projects seem acceptable.

    When we have tremendous success, what happens? Congress abandons the Moon and President Nixon abandons NASA. Rather than explore the Moon, even with robotic probes, we go for a low Earth orbit space station that we quickly abandon and a Space Shuttle that was supposed to do it all but ended up doing little. Now it seems that NASA has to reinvent the rocket and mission profile in order to go back to the Moon. Congress and previous presidents have turned NASA into a cluster bleep. We can only hope that the current ones aren’t as stupid. There are a lot of brains, talent, and skills over there at NASA; we shouldn’t squander them on pointless or risky projects.

    Maybe we should try doing it right, for once, and follow NASA’s own methods for assuring that the level of a technology is ready for use before we commit it to use.

  • Edward

    Now I am stuck on this topic of how NASA has been squandered since the Apollo days. With an anniversary coming up this month, I am reminded of a talk at the Computer History Museum, last month, in which Charles Simonyi, the first repeat space tourist, answered the question as to what was most important about the Apollo 11 Moon landing. He said that the significance to him was that we “organize[d] and measure[d] the best of our energies and skills.”

    Robert has noted that the space race was a competition between two different governance and economic systems, where the capitalist system won, but it used a top-down centrally-controlled method that resembled socialism more than capitalism. However, the funding was from capitalist activities, which allowed us to live well in a rising economy while funding solutions to several different important problems.

    These days, our top-down centrally-controlled NASA has trouble doing less because the top, Congress, does not consider space as being important, but our commercial sector considers it as being important and wants to make a lot of money in space. I think that once again we are organizing and measuring the best of our energies and skills, but this time we are doing it in the commercial space sector.

    Unfortunately, this comment does not factor well into the mission to Titan. Perhaps one day NASA will lean more heavily on the commercial companies for its deep space probes in a way similar to what it has started to do with lunar exploration. Who knows, maybe the commercial companies will some day do their own exploration and sell for profit the information gathered. In that case, the companies may perform their own Decadal Surveys to determine what is most important to explore for the capital that they have available.

  • wayne

    Just stumbled across this, but have not yet watched it:

    Elizabeth Turtle –
    “Dragonfly: Flights of Exploration Across Saturn’s Moon Titan”
    (April 17, 2019)
    Simon’s Foundation Public Lecture

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