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NASA’s Dragonfly preparing to fly through atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan

ElOjoTorpe/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) — NASA is preparing for its next mission: flying through the atmosphere of one of Saturn’s moons.

The space agency’s Dragonfly rotorcraft lander mission will be exploring Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, as well as the second largest in the solar system, and NASA announced this week that it performed new tests in preparation for the mission.

Launching in June 2027 and arriving in the mid-2030s, the mission, which is expected to last for nearly three years, will examine how far prebiotic chemistry has progressed, which is the study of how organic compounds formed, and if past or existing life is on the moon.

Titan is unique because it’s the only moon with a dense atmosphere and the only other object in space aside from Earth where evidence has been found of liquid on the surface.

Part of NASA’s New Frontiers Program, Dragonfly will be sampling materials in diverse locations to study the habitability of Titan’s environment, it said.

NASA says Titan’s environment is similar to Earth in its early stages and may provide clues to how life formed on Earth.

However, NASA and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, are ensuring the rotorcraft — which will fly like a drone — will be able to function in the unique environment.

Researchers have been conducting test campaigns at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, assessing the vehicle’s aerodynamic performance in harsh, near-Titan conditions during various stages of the mission.

In one of its latest tests, the team set up a half-scale Dragonfly lander model to test its descent once it arrives on Titan and its flight over the surface.

“We tested conditions across the expected flight envelope at a variety of wind speeds, rotor speeds and flight angles to assess the aerodynamic performance of the vehicle,” test lead Bernadine Juliano of the APL said in a statement on NASA’s website.

“We completed more than 700 total runs, encompassing over 4,000 individual data points. All test objectives were successfully accomplished, and the data will help increase confidence in our simulation models on Earth before extrapolating to Titan conditions,” Juliano said.

Earlier this month, NASA held a press conference to unveil the contents of the OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security — Regolith Explorer) mission, also part of the New Frontiers program.

The asteroid sample collected from space contains “the building blocks of life on Earth,” according to the space agency.

The samples from the asteroid contained abundant water in the form of hydrated clay minerals and molecules, which may have led to the formation of lakes, oceans and rivers on Earth and had a high abundance of carbon, which may explain how Earth was seeded with chemicals.

This is not the first time researchers have attempted to explore Titan.

The European Space Agency’s Huygens Probe landed on the moon in January 2005 and spent about four hours discovering new information about Titan’s atmosphere and surface.

ABC News’ Gina Sunseri contributed to this report.


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