Looking for life on Titan with NASA Dragonfly

astrophysics careers
By Erin F.

Hi everyone! It's your friendly neighborhood astrophysicist here to tell you a little bit about my work with the NASA Dragonfly Mission.

What is Titan?

Titan is a moon of Saturn and (in my totally completely unbiased opinion) the coolest place in the Solar System. It has the most similar atmosphere to our own and it’s the only other place in the Solar System with standing liquid on its surface, but instead of liquid water, it has liquid methane. It might even have liquid water deep underground! All of this means Titan is a place that could have life. But in order to find out, we’re sending:

NASA Dragonfly

The Dragonfly space craft will be like none other. Unlike the Mars rovers, Dragonfly will be a rotocopter (imagine a large drone) that will be able to fly around Titan, taking samples and readings of its surface and atmosphere. Set to launch in 2027 and to arrive at Titan in the 2030s, Dragonfly will tell us so much about whether or not Titan has or could have life on it, not to mention help us learn more about the conditions that might’ve made life possible on Earth.

What do you have to do with the project, Erin?

As you can imagine, putting a spacecraft on a moon that's nearly a billion miles away is not easy. We want to make sure that all of our hard work to build Dragonfly doesn’t go to waste once it finally gets there after being in flight for 7 years. To make sure it isn’t damaged or destroyed on Titan, we need to know what kinds of conditions it’ll be flying into. That’s where I come in. I use computers to model Titan’s atmosphere and surface conditions in order to make sure that Dragonfly will be up for the mission. Dragonfly will be landing near the equator, which has lots of dunes and small methane lakes. A previous mission to Saturn observed storms in this region, so I’m going to model the climate there and try to predict what Dragonfly might possibly encounter.

Erin holds a degree in Astrophysics from Columbia University, and she is currently a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and fifth year PhD student in Princeton's Astrophysical Sciences department. Her current work is in support of the NASA Dragonfly mission.


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