NASA wants to send a drone across Saturn’s largest moon, Titan or a probe to collect samples from a duck-shaped comet.

So, NASA has selected two finalists for its New Frontiers robotic mission program: a drone flying across Saturn’s largest moon, Titan and a probe to collect samples from a duck-shaped comet.

There were 12 proposals submitted in April. However, NASA has chosen two of which will receive funding to continue developing their concepts.

So, each team now will get $4 million.

“It’s one of the most difficult programs to be selected for,” said James L. Green, director of the planetary science division at NASA. “We fly only about two of these types of missions per decade.”


So, the first proposition includes a mission called Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return, or Caesar. A spacecraft would go to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and bring back a small chunk to Earth for closer study. The European Space Agency’s Rosetta also explored this comet.

Scientists named the second mission, Dragonfly. It includes a robotic drone which will fly to Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, to perform detailed explorations of various terrains.

“These are tremendously exciting missions,” Dr. Green said.

However, in 2019, NASA will select only one of them, thus, lifting off before the end of 2025.

Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return

The CAESAR mission would travel to the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and bring back at least 100 grams from the comet’s nucleus for analysis.

“Comets are among the most scientifically important objects in the solar system, but they’re also among the most poorly understood,” Steve Squyres, a researcher at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and principal investigator for CAESAR, said at the conference. “They’re the most primitive building blocks of planets; they contain materials that date from the very earliest moments of solar system formation and even before. Comets were a source of water for the Earth’s oceans, and critically they were a source of organic molecules that contributed to the origin of life.”

CAESAR will bring samples of the volatile ices from its surface that are comets’ signature feature.

Japan’s space agency would design the sample capsule, based on its Hayabusa asteroid mission. The spacecraft would come from Orbital ATK and use solar-electric propulsion to make its way to the comet.

The Dragonfly mission would follow up on observations made by the ESA’s Cassini-Huygens mission that concluded in September. The Huygens probe landed on Titan in 2005, while its companion, Cassini, made many flybys of Titan.

The mission would send a flying lander to explore Titan’s hazy, hydrocarbon atmosphere and examine its surface. Methane and ethane seas and rivers almost completely cover Titan’s surface. (Titan’s methane seas)

“Dragonfly would spend most of its time on the ground, but by being a rotorcraft, we’re able to fly to multiple sites tens to hundreds of kilometers apart to be able to make these measurements in different geologic settings,” Elizabeth Turtle, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Maryland and principal investigator for Dragonfly, said during the news conference.

“In this way, we can evaluate how far prebiotic chemistry has progressed in an environment that we know has the ingredients for life — for water-based life or potentially even hydrocarbon-based life,” Dr. Turtle added.

Powered by a chunk of plutonium, Dragonfly would take advantage of recent technological advances in flying drones.

After a launch in 2025, the mission would arrive at Titan in 2034 and explore for a few years.

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Thumbnail image: Dragonfly, a proposed dual-quadcopter lander that would explore Saturn’s moon, Titan, was one of two finalists in NASA’s New Frontiers competition. Credit: NASA