Drowned in a murky atmosphere that hides shallow pools of liquid hydrocarbons, Titan is a strange world we’re dying to see up close. That’s why NASA is preparing to launch a robotic robot to cover the landscape in 2027.
We now have a better idea of what kind of landscape awaits NASA’s Dragonfly mission.
Due to arrive at Saturn’s largest moon in 2034, the lander will eventually sit on the Shangri-la dune near Selk Crater. The researchers describe it as a “scientifically valuable area” worth exploring, and we still have a lot to learn about it.
A new study maps six specific points in the region, identifying it as a place likely to be covered by sand dunes and disintegrating, frozen ground. The work will form the basis for models and hypotheses that can be tested by Dragonfly once the probe lands.
“Dragonfly will land in an equatorial, dry region of Titan – an icy hydrocarbon world with a thick atmosphere,” says planetary scientist Léa Bonnefoy, of Cornell University in New York.
“Sometimes it rains liquid methane, but it’s more like a desert on Earth – where there are sand dunes, some small mountains and an impact crater. We’re looking closely at the landing site, its structure and surface.”
This close look included a detailed analysis of the radar images taken by the Cassini probe: by looking at how the radar signals change and reflect from different angles (technically known as their backscatter curves), the researchers were able to make educated guesses for parts of the surface of Titan.
As Cassini’s images only have a resolution of about 300 meters (984 feet) per pixel, the team also took into account data collected by the Huygens lander, which touched down south of the new potential landing site.
So far, many of these details, such as the height and shape of Selk Crater, are little more than estimates, meaning that there is a lot of analysis to be done between now and 2034.
“In the coming years, we’re going to see a lot of attention paid to the Selk Crater area,” says planetary scientist Alex Hayes, of Cornell University.
The Dragonfly will be what is called a camper. a helicopter-like machine that will function similarly to a consumer drone when it reaches the landing zone. It is planned to weigh about 450 kg (992 lb), with eight rotors that are about one meter (3.3 ft) in diameter.
In Titan’s low-wind, low-gravity atmosphere, Dragonfly will zoom along at a maximum speed of 36 kilometers (22 miles) per hour, creating longer and longer flights away from its original landing site.
As Titan is in many ways comparable to the early Earth, scientists hope to learn more about our own planet as well as Saturn’s moon. Ultimately, our understanding of Titan is expected to increase significantly once Dragonfly arrives, in the same way that the Curiosity rover has shown us much more about Mars.
“Dragonfly will finally show us what the region – and Titan – looks like,” says Bonnefoy.
The research has been published in Planetary Science Journal.