NASA approves Dragonfly mission to the Saturn moon Titan

NASA yesterday announced that it has given final approval for the Dragonfly helicopter mission to the Saturn moon Titan.

With the release of the president’s fiscal year 2025 budget request, Dragonfly is confirmed with a total lifecycle cost of $3.35 billion and a launch date of July 2028. This reflects a cost increase of about two times the proposed cost and a delay of more than two years from when the mission was originally selected in 2019. Following that selection, NASA had to direct the project to replan multiple times due to funding constraints in fiscal years 2020 through 2022. The project incurred additional costs due to the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain increases, and the results of an in-depth design iteration. To compensate for the delayed arrival at Titan, NASA also provided additional funding for a heavy-lift launch vehicle to shorten the mission’s cruise phase.

The rotorcraft, targeted to arrive at Titan in 2034, will fly to dozens of promising locations on the moon, looking for prebiotic chemical processes common on both Titan and the early Earth before life developed. Dragonfly marks the first time NASA will fly a vehicle for science on another planetary body. The rotorcraft has eight rotors and flies like a large drone.

Be prepared for the project to go overbudget, as NASA’s biggests projects almost always do.

Dragonfly mission to Titan delayed by a year because of budget shortfalls

Even as NASA gave engineers approval to move forward on building the helicopter set to fly on the Dragonfly mission to the Saturn moon Titan, it also revealed that the mission’s launch has been delayed by at least one year because of budget shortfalls.

In a presentation at a Nov. 28 meeting of NASA’s Outer Planets Assessment Group (OPAG), Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said agency leadership decided to postpone formal confirmation of the mission earlier this month, a milestone where the agency sets an official cost and schedule for the mission.

The delay in confirmation by NASA’s Agency Program Management Council (APMC), she said, is based on uncertainty about how much money will be available for the mission and other parts of NASA’s planetary science portfolio given broader budget pressures on the agency. “Because of these incredibly large uncertainties in FY ’24 and FY ’25 funding and budgets, the decision was made at that APMC to postpone the official confirmation,” she said.

The launch had been scheduled for 2027. When it will launch now is unclear.

Apparently (and not surprising since this is a NASA project) the mission is beginning to cost more than originally predicted. Furthermore, this shortfall is enhanced by the cost overruns from the Mars Sample Return mission. In fact, it appears that these cost overruns are impacting NASA’s entire planetary program, causing delays on many smaller missions in order to fund Mars Sample Return and the Europa Clipper mission (set to launch next year). Just as Webb wiped out most of NASA’s astrophysics missions in the 2000s and 2010s, this handful of big planetary missions is wiping out most of NASA’s planetary program.

The announced delay is also a typical NASA’s negotiating tactic with Congress, trying to pressure elected officials to cough up more money. For decades NASA would announce the need for crippling cuts to major and popular science projects unless Congress allocates it more cash for its most expensive projects, and for decades Congress has gladly done so. No one ever asks whether those expensive projects might be better off redesigned, or cancelled.

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.