On June 26, Elizabeth Tuttle was overjoyed when she received a call from NASA: her project to send a drone copter to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, was given the green light and a budget of nearly a billion dollars.
But the launch of “Dragonfly” won’t happen until 2026, surely a frustrating detail, given she has been working on the project for 15 years.
“Zibi” Tuttle said,
“It’s not going to feel like a long time, it’s gonna go very quickly,”
She is a planetologist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, outside Washington that employs 7,000 people, a massive research center.
The 1,323-pound drone won’t land on Titan about one billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) from Earth until 2034.
Turtle explains calmly,
“The outer solar system is a distant place”.
She seems surprised, she is actually being asked about the length of interplanetary voyages.
“It definitely takes a certain amount of patience to explore the outer solar system.”
The pace of planetology does not resemble most other scientific disciplines. The distances are so far and the robots we send to cross them are so sophisticated that the researcher will devote their lives to a handful of missions.
A graduate of MIT and the University of Arizona, Zibi Tuttle remembers the first images of Titan, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in the 1990s. The researcher was one of the first to receive close-up photographs of Titan taken in 2004 by the Cassini spacecraft, launched seven years earlier.
“That was fascinating, to see clouds on another planet and we had no idea what was on the surface. We could just see dark and bright areas.”
Over the next few years, Titan began to take shape: a strange celestial body whose surface temperature was about -290 degrees Fahrenheit (-179 degrees Celsius). It is larger than Mercury and our Moon, with an ice crust crossed by rivers and lakes of liquid methane.
Winds blow, clouds move, and it rains (methane) over the valleys, dunes and mountains that make up the moon’s surface. Cold volcanoes might even spew water as their lava.
Scientists believe that conditions on Titan are similar to those on Earth, before the first life forms appeared. They suspect the liquid methane could play the same role as water in making the jump between chemistry and biology.
Dragonfly, which will serve as a mini chemistry lab, will fly for years from one place to another, looking for carbon-based molecules, what researchers call the components of life.
The molecules collected in an old river may be different from those that are never wet. All traces of the original history of the Earth have been erased. Titan could offer a journey back in time
If Dragonfly finds nothing?
she says without a trace of doubt that,
“There’s no way we won’t learn something from Titan, No matter what we find, it will tell us something.”
Planetary exploration has taught Turtle that
“The solar system is more creative than our imaginations.”
Then she adds
“There are always surprises,”.
Before the launch date, she must complete the design and construction of Dragonfly: four sets of rotors, a miniature nuclear generator, a lithium-ion battery, 10 cameras, two sampling exercises and four scientific instruments.
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22 July, 2019