Why Is NASA Sending a Rotorcraft Instead of a Rover to Titan in Search of Alien Life

Jupiter moon 'fanatics' have stalled missions to Saturn's moon Titan for many years by pulling favors and petitioning Congress to prioritize the Jupiter CLIPPER mission. Now it is time for a long overdue visit to Titan. NASA has observed methane there, but will the mission find evidence of Titan harboring alien life?

NASA hasn’t seen Titan’s surface since 2005 when the Huygens probe dropped through its orange haze and showed a fantastic view.

In the years since the Huygens landing, scientists observed even more molecular riches. These include negatively charged molecules involved in complex chemical reactions, rings of hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen that can be used to make amino acids, and molecules that can clump together to form a spherical envelope like the membranes surrounding cells. Horst, a scientist in favor of a mission to Titan, stated, “We are pretty sure that Titan has everything in these broad, big-picture categories that are needed for life.” “At some point, it comes down to, well, shouldn’t we go check?”

Titan April 15 2013 37316081261
Titan – April 15 2013 by Kevin Gill under CC BY 2.0

In 2009, a mission to Jupiter and its moons was given more importance than a mission to Titan and Saturn’s system. This led to NASA’s Europa Clipper mission getting the go-ahead in 2015 after members of the Planetary Society and other scientists sent tens of thousands of letters to Congress asking for a mission to Europa. So, what would have happened if tens of thousands of scientists hadn’t asked Congress to do something?


Titan Saturn System Mission (TSSM)

Suppose others hadn’t petitioned Congress so hard for the CLIPPER mission. In that case, the TSSM might have been launched at an estimated cost of $2.5 billion and be two years into its space flight towards Titan, one of the moons of Saturn via Venus, using Venus as a gravity assist. The TSSM mission would have arrived in the Saturn system in 2029. 

Advocates at NASA for a mission to Titan have had to wait very patiently. They have been waiting since 2007 when NASA’s Titan Explorer study started. In January 2009, the Titan Saturn System Mission (TSSM) was officially made when the ESA’s Titan and Enceladus Mission (TandEM) and NASA’s Titan Explorer (2007) study were combined.

Finally, the plan to send a probe to Titan has been realized under a different NASA program. The Dragonfly mission to Titan will be the fourth mission funded by NASA’s New Frontiers program, which helps pay for medium-sized planetary science projects that cost less than US$1 billion, a fraction less than the original proposed TSSM $2.5 billion mission.


Thomas Zurbuchen (NASA’s associate administrator for science) said that NASA’s bold plan led them to ask two separate teams to look at the mission plan and figure out if the project could be done within the budget. In the end, the agency decided that the project could be done. Dragonfly going to Titan is one of two program ideas that have been under consideration since December 2017. The Titan mission has now got the go-ahead!

Titan is one of the best places to look for alien life. NASA will send a flying robot called Dragonfly to the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan as part of its next planetary science mission. It is now officially announced in the Washington Post that the mission to Titan is going ahead.

Zurbuchen now believes this is the right time to do such a mission.


Interestingly, the Titan mission will use Venus as a gravity assist because it was only a few weeks ago that Professor Dr. Noam Izenberg advocated at the  International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Paris that NASA should visit Venus before Mars as a Venus mission could test flight assist for future Mars missions.


It is planned that Dragonfly, NASA’s car-sized rotorcraft, will take off in a rocket in 2026, and all going to plan, will land on Titan in 2034. Scientists have had to make a navigation system for the spacecraft to help it avoid dangers and fly and land on its own.

Dragonfly spacecraft
Dragonfly spacecraft by NASA APL

During its visit to Titan, Dragonfly will visit many places on the planet hundreds of miles apart. With eight rotors, Dragonfly can go much farther than any wheeled robot ever has, up to nine miles per hop.


NASA says that Dragonfly will land in dunes made of solid hydrocarbon snowflakes near Titan’s equator before ending up in the Selk Crater, which is where an ancient meteor hit. Scientists have found signs of liquid water, organic molecules, and energy that could power chemical reactions there.

Like NASA’s Mars rovers, it will be powered by the heat from radioactive plutonium. Dragonfly will also be equipped with instruments that can identify large organic molecules. 

Why Titan?

Scientists find Titan most interesting because of all the methane that is there. Methane is a molecule usually destroyed by sunlight in a few million years. It keeps coming back, which suggests that a process keeps replenishing Titan’s supply.

Titan interior labelled
Titan interior labelled by A. D. Fortes/UCL/STFC

Titan is bigger than Mercury and has as many different types of land as Earth. This big, cold moon has a thick, methane-filled atmosphere, ice mountains, and the only other surface seas in the solar system besides those on Earth.

On Titan, however, the rivers and lakes are full of liquid hydrocarbons that move around. Scientists think that if the moon has water, it is in an ocean that lies beneath the frozen crust.

Lori Glaze, who runs NASA’s planetary science division, believes that Titan has all the ingredients that are needed to help life form. The carbon rings and chains on Titan observed by NASA are important for many basic biological processes and may be like the building blocks from which life on Earth started.


Glaze has stated that Dragonfly will give us a chance to learn about the processes that were going on on early Earth and maybe even the conditions that could support life today.

Surprising facts were revealed at a press conference

At a news conference, the mission’s leader, Elizabeth Turtle, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, said, “It’s actually easier to fly on Titan.” That world has a thicker atmosphere than Earth and less gravity.

The craft must, however, be able to move on its own. It takes 43 minutes for light signals from Earth to reach Titan, which makes Dragonfly much more complicated than a regular drone.


“This is a new way to explore a different planet, but this is technology that has been used for a long time on Earth,” said Turtle.

What we’re really doing with Dragonfly isn’t inventing anything new. We’re just taking what we’ve learned and adapting it to an alien world.

Featured image credit: NASA Dragonfly mission to Titan by NASA