Smothered in a hazy atmosphere that hides shallow lakes of liquid hydrocarbons, Titan is a strange world that we are dying to look up close. That’s why NASA is preparing to launch a robotic rotorcraft to explore the landscape in 2027.
We now have a better idea of what kind of landscape awaits NASA Dragonfly assignment.
Due to arrive on Saturn’s largest moon in 2034, the lander will eventually touch down in the Shangri-la dune field near the Selk Crater. Researchers describe it as a “scientifically remarkable area” worth exploring, and we still have a lot to learn about it.
A new study maps six specific parts of the region, identifying it as a place likely to be covered in sand dunes and icy, broken ground. The work will provide a basis for models and hypotheses that can be tested by Dragonfly once the probe lands.
“Dragonfly will land in a dry, equatorial region of Titan – a world of icy, thick hydrocarbons”, says planetologist Léa Bonnefoyfrom Cornell University in New York.
“It sometimes rains liquid methane, but it’s more like a desert on Earth – where you have dunes, a few small mountains and an impact crater. We take a close look at the landing site, its structure and its surface. “
This in-depth examination involved a detailed analysis of radar images captured by the Cassini spacecraft: looking at how radar signals change and reflect at different angles (technically known as their backscatter curves), researchers were able to make educated guesses about parts of Titan’s surface.
Since the Cassini 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 landed south of the new dive site. potential landing.
So far, many of these details, such as the height and shape of Selk crater, are little more than estimates, meaning there’s a lot of analysis to be done by 2034.
“Over the next few years, we’re going to see a lot of focus on the Selk crater region,” says planetary scientist Alex Hayesfrom Cornell University.
Dragonfly is going to be what is called a rotorcraft; a helicopter-like craft that will operate similarly to a consumer drone when it reaches the landing zone. It is expected to weigh around 450 kilograms (992 pounds), with eight rotors around one meter (3.3 ft) in diameter each.
In Titan’s low-wind, low-gravity atmosphere, Dragonfly will zoom at a maximum speed of 36 kilometers (22 miles) per hour, accumulating longer and longer flights away from its initial landing site.
Since Titan is in many ways comparable to early Earth, scientists hope to learn more about our own planet as well as the Saturnian moon. Ultimately, our understanding of Titan should expand dramatically once Dragonfly arrives, much like the Curiosity rover showed us. so much more about mars.
“Dragonfly will finally show us what the region – and Titan – looks like”, says Bonnefoy.
The research was published in the Journal of Planetary Science.