A small Dragonfly, a Titan mission

Artist’s impression of the vertical take-off and landing system NASA plans to send to Saturn’s moon Titan.

Already building a small unmanned helicopter for its Mars mission, NASA is planning to send another small rotary vertical take-off and landing system to explore another world in the solar system. It is planning to send an autonomous system called the Dragonfly as part of a newly announced mission to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons.

The agency was very short on detail about the specifics of the Dragonfly system, but a statement said: “Dragonfly marks the first time NASA will fly a multi-rotor vehicle for science on another planet.” The system will be an octocopter (eight rotors) and will use Titan’s dense atmosphere, four times denser than Earth’s, “to become the first vehicle ever to fly its entire science payload to new places for repeatable and targeted access to surface materials”.

Dragonfly will launch as part of the New Frontiers mission to Titan in 2026 and arrive on the distant world (which is 886 million miles/1.4 billion km away from the sun) in 2034.

Separately, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, recently confirmed the autonomous helicopter to be sent to Mars next year as part of the Mars 2020 rover mission will be integrated with the rover this summer ahead of its scheduled launch in July 2020. When it arrives on Mars early in 2021, the helicopter will become the first system to attempt to establish the viability of heavierthan- air vehicles flying on another planet. Mark Broadbent