Drones in Space

November 15, 2019
NASA/JPL-CALTECH/SPACE SCIENCE INSTITUTE

In 2005, scientists saw the first close-up pictures of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. The pictures, snapped by the Huygens space probe, showed mountains and dunes. But what got scientists most excited were riverbeds and lakes. Where there’s liquid, there could be life.

“It was spectacular to see familiar terrain on such a different world,” Elizabeth Turtle told TIME for Kids. Turtle is a scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, in Maryland. “The processes that shape Titan’s landscape are similar to [those that shaped] Earth’s.”

Titan could hold clues to how life began on Earth nearly 4 billion years ago. Its atmosphere drops a snow of organic material that collects as dunes. Chemicals in that material mix with liquids on Titan, like what happened on Earth before the first life-forms appeared.

Until now, NASA has used wheeled rovers to study other planets. This summer, the organization agreed to pay for Turtle’s team to build a dronelike craft. It’s called Dragonfly, and it will be among the first flying machines used for planetary exploration. “This cutting-edge mission would have been unthinkable a few years ago,” says NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. “But we’re ready now for Dragonfly’s amazing flight.”

OVER THE MOON In this illustration, Dragonfly hovers above the dunes of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. In the view of Titan from space (right), dune-filled regions form a sideways letter H.

FROM LEFT: NASA/JHU-APL;NASA/JPL/UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA/UNIVERSITY OF IDAHO

Taking Flight

Dragonfly will launch from Earth in 2026 and arrive on Titan in 2034. For about two years, it will make short flights, gathering samples and sending back data.

The craft is an octocopter, with eight rotors. It will have cameras, drills, a device to suck up materials, and an instrument to analyze findings. It’ll be self-guided, finding its way around Titan without directions from Earth.

Titan’s dense atmosphere and low gravity make flying easy. A person who traveled there would be able to strap on wings and take off. “But you’d need oxygen,” Turtle says, “and something to keep you warm.” The temperature on Titan is minus 290°F.

The project is a leap forward in the search for life on other planets, Turtle says. “We get to bring a whole new dimension—flight—to exploring another world.”

TWO-IN-ONE This model of the Shapeshifter robot rolls, to save energy. Then it separates into two flying drones when it’s time to explore uneven surfaces.

NASA/JPL-CALTECH

Shape of the Future?

Dragonfly will investigate Titan’s dunes and craters. What about places that are harder to reach? Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in California, are testing a robot called Shapeshifter. At first glance, the machine looks like a hamster wheel. On Titan, it will roll along until it comes to an obstacle, such as a mountain. Then it will split into two drones. They’ll fly around, gather data, then reconnect on the other side.

“Most of the interesting places to study on other planets are not on flat surfaces,” says Ali Agha, lead researcher on the project. “They are on the sides of cliff walls, or inside caves or potholes.”

SHAPESHIFTER This illustration imagines a set of drones that can fly independently, come together into a ball, or form a chain for exploring caves.

MARILYNN FLYNN—NASA/JPL-CALTECH

Agha imagines a Shapeshifter made of 12 drones. They’ll be able to come together into a ball or form a chain for exploring caves. And they’ll go underwater. We can’t know for sure where we’ll find signs of life on Titan, Agha says. “When you’re dealing with totally unknown environments, you need to be versatile.”

ALEXTOV—GETTY IMAGES

Saturn Stats

Including Titan, Saturn could have as many as 82 moons. Here are other facts and statistics to know:

  • Saturn is the second-largest planet in the solar system, after Jupiter. You could fit 764 Earths inside Saturn.

  • The planet’s rings are made of chunks of rock and ice.

  • Saturn is the sixth planet from the sun and about 900 million miles away from it.

  • It takes Saturn 29 years to complete one orbit around the sun. That makes its year equal to 29 years on Earth.

  • The planet is 4.5 billion years old.