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.

Two finalists for 2020 deep space planetary mission picked by NASA

NASA has narrowed its choice for a 2020s deep space planetary mission to two finalists, either a sample return mission to Comet 67P/C-G or a drone that would fly through Titan’s atmosphere.

The sample return mission sounds very doable with today’s technology. The Titan drone mission however is far more intriguing.

Dragonfly is a dual-quadcopter lander that would take advantage of the environment on Titan to fly to multiple locations, some hundreds of miles apart, to sample materials and determine surface composition to investigate Titan’s organic chemistry and habitability, monitor atmospheric and surface conditions, image landforms to investigate geological processes, and perform seismic studies.

If it was up to me and I had unlimited funds, I’d go with Dragonfly. We know far less about the outer solar system, and this mission would be an ideal way to increase that knowledge. It is also far more daring, which carries the risk that the costs to build and launch will rise uncontrollably.

SpaceX Dragonfly test vehicle arrives in Texas

The competition heats up: Dragonfly, SpaceX’s test capsule for testing vertical rocket landings, has arrived at their facility in McGregor, Texas.

DragonFly will be attached to a large crane, ahead of a series of test firings of its SuperDraco thrusters to set the stage towards the eventual goal of propulsive landings. The first test is set to take place in the next few weeks to kick start around two years of incremental testing.

Similar in concept to Grasshopper, Dragonfly is not an actual Dragon capsule, but a testbed for figuring out how to do vertical landings with a capsule, using thrusters.

The FAA is inching closer to approving a license to allow SpaceX to conduct tests in Texas of its rocket-powered prototype of its Dragon capsule.

The competition heats up: The FAA is inching closer to approving a license to allow SpaceX to conduct tests in Texas of its rocket-powered prototype of its Dragon capsule.

Simply, DragonFly is a propulsive system designed to allow the SpaceX Dragon capsule to perform propulsive landings (both with and without parachute assistance). Overall, DragonFly will use eight SuperDraco hypergolic engines capable of producing up to 16,400 lbf of thrust each. …

In all, SpaceX has proposed, and submitted to the FAA for commercial experimental license, a total of 30 DragonFly tests at its McGregor test facility. Four of the test flights involve DragonFly being dropped from a helicopter at an altitude of 10,000 ft with two propulsive assist landings parachutesand engines) and two propulsive landings (engines only). The remaining 26 of the proposed test flights will launch from a specially-built pad that will take between 1-2 weeks to construct (according to the FAA draft environmental report). These 26 flights will consist of eight parachute-assist landings and 18 full propulsive hops (rocket engines only).

We should all be relieved: The 76-page draft environmental impact statement noted that these tests will not destroy the Earth, and that their effect on global warming will be tiny. If the license is finally approved, testing should begin before the end of 2014.