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← What Saturn's most mysterious moon could teach us about the origins of life

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Showing Revision 5 created 08/28/2020 by marialadias.

  1. Picture a world
    with a variety of landforms.
  2. It has a dense atmosphere
  3. within which winds
    sweep across its surface
  4. and rain falls.
  5. It has mountains and plains,
  6. rivers, lakes and seas,
  7. sand dunes and some impact craters.
  8. Sounds like Earth, right?

  9. This is Titan.
  10. In August 1981,

  11. Voyager 2 captured this image
    of Saturn's largest moon.
  12. The Voyager missions have traveled
    farther than ever before,
  13. making the solar system and beyond
  14. part of our geography.
  15. But this image, this hazy moon
  16. was a stark reminder
    of just how much mystery remained.
  17. We learned an exponential amount
    as the Voyagers flew by it,
  18. and yet we had no idea
    what lay beneath this atmospheric blanket.
  19. Was there an icy surface with landforms
    like those of the other moons
  20. that had been observed
    at Saturn and Jupiter?
  21. Or perhaps simply a vast
    global ocean of liquid methane?
  22. Shrouded by the obscuring haze,

  23. Titan's surface was
    a huge, outstanding mystery
  24. that Cassini-Huygens,
    an orbiter lander pair launched in 1997,
  25. was designed to solve.
  26. After arrival in 2004,
  27. the early images Cassini sent back
    of Titan's surface
  28. only heightened the allure.
  29. It took months for us to understand
    what we were seeing on the surface,
  30. to determine, for example,
  31. that the dark stripes,
  32. which were initially so unrecognizable
    that we referred to them as cat scratches,
  33. were actually dunes made of organic sand.
  34. Over the course of the 13 years
    Cassini spent studying Saturn

  35. and its rings and moons,
  36. we had the privilege
  37. of going from knowing almost nothing
    about the surface of Titan
  38. to understanding its geology,
  39. the role the atmosphere plays
    in shaping its surface,
  40. and even hints of what lies
    deep beneath that surface.
  41. Indeed, Titan is one
    of several ocean worlds,

  42. moons in the cold outer solar system
  43. beyond the orbits of Mars
    and the asteroid belt
  44. with immense liquid water oceans
    beneath their surfaces.
  45. Titan's interior ocean may have
    more than 10 times as much liquid water
  46. as all of the Earth's rivers, lakes,
    seas and oceans combined.
  47. And at Titan, there are also
    exotic lakes and seas
  48. of liquid methane and ethane
    on the surface.
  49. Ocean worlds are some
    of the most fascinating places
  50. in the solar system,
  51. and we have only
    just begun to explore them.
  52. This is Dragonfly.

  53. At the Johns Hopkins
    Applied Physics Laboratory,
  54. we're building this mission
    for NASA's new Frontiers program.
  55. Scheduled to launch in 2026
    and reach Titan in 2034,
  56. Dragonfly is a rotorcraft lander,
  57. similar in size to the Mars rovers
    or about the size of a small car.
  58. Titan's dense atmosphere,
    combined with its low gravity,
  59. make it a great place to fly,
  60. and that's exactly
    what Dragonfly is designed to do.
  61. Technically an octocopter,

  62. Dragonfly is a mobile laboratory
    that can fly from place to place
  63. taking all of its scientific
    instruments with it.
  64. Dragonfly will investigate Titan
    in a truly unique way,
  65. studying details
    of its weather and geology,
  66. and even picking up
    samples from the surface
  67. to learn what they're made of.
  68. All told, Dragonfly will spend
    about three years exploring Titan,
  69. measuring its detailed chemistry,
  70. observing the atmosphere
    and how it interacts with the surface,
  71. and even listening for earthquakes,
  72. or technically titanquakes,
    in Titan's crust.
  73. The Dragonfly team,

  74. hundreds of people across
    North America and around the world,
  75. is hard at work
    on the design for this mission,
  76. developing the rotorcraft,
    its autonomous navigation system
  77. and its instrumentation,
  78. all of which will need to work together
    to make science measurements
  79. on the surface of Titan.
  80. Dragonfly is the next step
    in our exploration

  81. of this fascinating natural laboratory.
  82. In flying by, Voyager hinted
    at the possibilities.
  83. In orbiting Saturn for over a decade
  84. and descending through Titan's atmosphere,
  85. Cassini and Huygens pulled
    Titan's veil back a bit further.
  86. Dragonfly will live
    in the Titan environment,
  87. where, so far, our only close-up view
  88. is this image the Huygens probe
    took in January 2005.
  89. In many ways, Titan is the closest
    known analogue we have to the early Earth,

  90. the Earth before life developed here.
  91. From Cassini-Huygens' measurements,
  92. we know that the ingredients for life,
  93. at least life as we know it,
  94. have existed on Titan,
  95. and Dragonfly will be fully immersed
    within this alien environment,
  96. looking for compounds similar to those
  97. that might have supported
    the development of life here on Earth
  98. and teaching us about
    the habitability of other worlds.
  99. Habitability is a fascinating concept.

  100. What's necessary to make
    an environment suitable to host life,
  101. whether life as we know it here on Earth,
  102. or perhaps exotic life that has developed
    under very different conditions?
  103. The possibility of life elsewhere

  104. has inspired human imagination
    and exploration throughout history.
  105. On a grand scale,
  106. it's why the ocean worlds
    in the outer solar system
  107. have become such
    important targets for study.
  108. It's the "what if"
    that drives human exploration.
  109. We don't know how chemistry
    took the step to biology here on Earth,

  110. but similar chemical processes
    may have happened on Titan,
  111. where organic molecules
    have had the opportunity
  112. to mix with liquid water at the surface.
  113. Has organic synthesis progressed
    under these conditions?
  114. And if so, how far?
  115. We don't know ... yet.
  116. What we will learn from Dragonfly,
    this fundamentally human endeavor,

  117. is tantalizing.
  118. It's a search for building blocks,
    foundations, chemical steps
  119. like those that ultimately
    led to life on Earth.
  120. We're not sure exactly
    what we will find when we get to Titan,
  121. but that's exactly why we're going.
  122. In 1994, Carl Sagan wrote,

  123. "On Titan, the molecules
    that have been raining down
  124. like manna from heaven
    for the last four billion years
  125. might still be there,
  126. largely unaltered, deep-frozen,
    awaiting the chemists from Earth."
  127. We are those chemists.
  128. Dragonfly is a search
    for greater understanding,
  129. not just of Titan and the mysteries
    of our solar system,
  130. but of our own origins.
  131. Thank you.