The Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s giant moon Titan is scheduled to launch in 2027. It will begin a journey of discovery that could lead to a new understanding of the evolution of life in the universe. It will carry the Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer (DraMS), which will help scientists determine the chemistry at work on Titan. Dragonfly is the fourth mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program.
Titan is a great place to study prebiotic chemical processes and the potential habitability of an alien environment due to its abundant complex carbon-rich chemistry, inland sea, and historical presence of liquid water. DraMS allows researchers to remotely examine the chemical composition of Titan’s surface.
Titan’s low gravity and dense atmosphere allow the robotic rotorcraft Dragonfly to travel between several points of interest on Titan’s surface, some of which may be several miles apart. As a result, Dragonfly can move its entire instrumentation and access samples in environments with different geologic histories.
Dr. Melissa Trainer of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, said: “We want to know if the type of chemistry that could be important to early pre-biochemical systems on Earth takes place on Titan.”
The Dragonfly robotic rotorcraft will use Titan’s low gravity and dense atmosphere to fly between several points of interest on Titan’s surface, which may be several miles apart. This allows Dragonfly to move its entire array of instruments and access monsters in environments with different geologic histories.
A mass spectrometer is a device that analyzes the various chemical components of a sample by breaking them down into their basic molecules and passing them through sensors for identification.
Mass spectrometers determine what’s in a sample by ionizing it (hitting it with energy, causing the atoms to become positively or negatively charged) and analyzing the chemical composition of the various molecules. This includes determining the relationship between the weight and charge of the molecule, which acts as a signature for the compound.
coach said, “DraMS is designed to look at the organic molecules that may be present on Titan, their composition and distribution in different surface environments.”
The DraMS instrument suite was developed in part by the same Goddard team that created the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite aboard the Curiosity rover. DraMS is designed to probe samples of Titanian surface material in situ using techniques developed for the SAM suite on Mars. It is a research tool that examines organic molecules on Titan, which are used by all known life forms.
Trainer emphasized the benefits of this heritage. When it came to looking for organic chemicals on Titan, the Dragonfly scientists didn’t want to “reinvent the wheel.” So they focused on proven methods already used on Mars and elsewhere.
coach said, “This design has given us an instrument that is very flexible, able to adapt to different types of surface samples.”
The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland is managing and designing the project for NASA. It builds the rotorcraft lander and is responsible for designing and building DraMS and other scientific instruments on Dragonfly.
Goddard is one of the team’s key collaborators, as is the French Space Agency (CNES, Paris, France), which provides the gas chromatograph module for DraMS, which will provide additional separation after leaving the oven.