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NASA’s Dragonfly Mission to Find Out the Possibilities of Life on Saturn’s Moon Titan

At first glance, Titan looks a lot like Earth

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Titan in front of Saturn as seen by Cassini. (Image credit: NASA). VOA

Saturn’s moon Titan has all the right ingredients for life. NASA’s newly announced mission, Dragonfly, will explore the icy moon from the air and the ground to determine whether life ever arose there.

A familiar alien landscape

At first glance, Titan looks a lot like Earth. Lakes and seas are scattered across the northern hemisphere, and occasional rains dampen its sandy surface. The similarities end there – Titan is so cold that water exists as rock-hard ice, and oily methane falls from the sky and trickles into the seas. The sand is made up of organic materials built from carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen, completely unlike what you’d find on any beach on Earth.

“One of the things I think is so exciting about Titan is how it can be alien and familiar at the same time. It’s 94 K [-290°F/-179°C] – it’s totally different material than what we’re used to interacting with on a daily basis: water-ice bedrock and liquid methane reservoirs and organic sand dunes,” said Elizabeth Turtle, Dragonfly’s principal investigator.

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Artist’s rendering of Dragonfly in flight over Titan. (Image credit: Johns Hopkins APL). VOA

Titan’s surface is hidden from view by its hazy atmosphere, which is four times denser than Earth’s. Combined with the low gravity – just one-seventh as strong as what we’re used to – the thick atmosphere makes Titan an ideal target for an airborne explorer.

The idea of building an aircraft to fly in Titan’s thick atmosphere isn’t new, but it wasn’t until drone technology became more advanced that the Dragonfly team realized they could make their dream of flying on Titan a reality.

Leapfrogging across Titan

With its two sets of four propellers stacked on top of one another, Dragonfly looks a little bit like a drone, but it’s much bigger than something you would fly around in your backyard – around 3 meters long and more than a meter tall. The design will allow Dragonfly to take pictures from the air and land on Titan’s frozen surface for a closer view.

It will initially target a region near the moon’s equator that is covered in sand dunes, similar to what is found in deserts on Earth. From there, it will begin to explore the moon in a “leapfrog” way, scouting beyond its next target to see what lies ahead, then flying back to its planned landing site to touch down and analyze samples of the surface, snap photographs and scan for earthquakes – or titanquakes, rather.

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Representative-color image of Titan’s surface. (Image credit: NASA). VOA

Traveling eight kilometers per leap, Dragonfly will make its way toward Selk crater, over 100 kilometers away. Scientists think that the heat from the collision that formed the crater would have liquefied the water ice in Titan’s crust, creating an environment with all the necessary components for life. The Dragonfly team hopes to learn whether combining organic material with liquid water and energy in the form of heat could have caused complex molecules to develop – or even life itself.

“We have this chance to explore a world that we know has all the ingredients for life, but how far did it get towards life?” said Melissa Trainer, deputy principal investigator for the mission.

Looking for life

If life has arisen on Titan, Dragonfly should be able to detect it. One thing its instruments will be on the lookout for is a class of molecules called amino acids, which are found in all life on Earth. Amino acids come in left- and right-handed varieties, just like a pair of gloves. When scientists make amino acids in a lab, they tend to form both kinds in equal amounts. Life, however, seems to prefer the left-handed kind. If amino acids are present on Titan, Dragonfly should be able to tell if there are unequal amounts of left- and right-handed varieties – a sign that life is present on the frozen surface.

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Radar image of sand dunes in the Shangri-La region of Titan, where Dragonfly will land. (Image credit: NASA). VOA

Dragonfly will launch in 2026 and arrive at Titan in 2034 after an eight-year interplanetary cruise. The science and engineering teams have plenty to do in the meantime. “We have to finish designing and building a spacecraft, we have to test a bunch of instruments and get them calibrated,” said science team member Sarah Hörst. “There’s a lot of work to do … I can’t wait to get started!”

ALSO READ: NASA Selects Eight New Teams to Conduct Research about Moon

It’s a long way off, but the team is confident that the mission will be worth the wait and is excited to share what they learn with the public. “We want everyone to be able to come along on the journey to explore Titan,” Turtle said. (VOA)

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Incredible Full Moon Falls on 50th Anniversary of NASA’s Apollo 11

The partial lunar eclipse will occur during the full moon beginning Tuesday night

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The moon is seen during a lunar eclipse known as the "Super Blood Wolf Moon," in Manaus, Brazil, Jan. 21, 2019. VOA

The last lunar eclipse of the year will take place this week, allowing stargazers from large swathes of the globe to catch a glimpse of the celestial phenomena.

The partial lunar eclipse will occur during the full moon beginning Tuesday night, and will be visible in South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. The only region that will miss out on viewing the eclipse entirely is North America.

A lunar eclipse occurs when there is an alignment of the moon, the sun and the Earth. It can only happen during a full moon, because that is the only time the moon can be directly opposite of the sun in Earth’s sky.

The upcoming alignment will result in a partial lunar eclipse because the moon will be slightly askew from a direct line with Earth’s shadow.

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The last lunar eclipse of the year will take place this week, allowing stargazers from large swathes of the globe to catch a glimpse of the celestial phenomena. Pixabay

This lunar eclipse will come two weeks after a total eclipse of the sun was visible over South America. This follows a typical astronomical pattern of lunar eclipses occurring within two weeks of a solar eclipse.

The last lunar eclipse took place in January 2019 and was visible from both Americas as well as parts of Europe and Africa. The next lunar eclipse will not take place until next year, however all four eclipses in 2020 will only be penumbral eclipses, which are much weaker than partial or full eclipses.

During penumbral eclipses, the moon passes through the weakest shadow cast by Earth and often does not visibly darken to the naked eye.

There won’t be another total lunar eclipse until May 2021.

Also Read- India Aborts Launch of Spacecraft Intended to Land on Far Side of Moon

Apollo anniversary

Tuesday’s lunar eclipse will be seen by stargazers at different times around the globe. Viewers in South America will be the first to see Earth’s shadow touch the moon’s surface when the moon is rising in the sky around sunset July 16, while watchers in Asia and Australia will see the moon in eclipse as it sets around sunrise July 17.

Interestingly, this celestial event falls on the anniversary of another lunar happening: July 16 is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 rocket launch, which first landed humans on the moon. (VOA)