A new NASA mission to Saturn’s giant moon, Titan, is scheduled for launch in 2027. When it arrives in the mid-2030s, it will begin a journey of discovery that could lead to new understanding of the evolution of life in the universe. This mission, called Dragonfly, will carry an instrument called the Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer (DraMS), designed to help scientists refine the chemistry of the work on Titan. It may also shed light on the kinds of chemical steps that took place on Earth that eventually led to the formation of life, called prebiotic chemistry.
Titan’s complex, carbon-rich chemistry, inner oceans, and past presence of liquid water on the surface make it an ideal destination for studying prebiotic chemical processes and the potential habitability of an extraterrestrial environment.
DraMS will allow scientists back to Earth to remotely study the chemical composition of Titanian’s surface. “We want to know if the kind of chemistry that could be important to Earth’s early prebiotic systems occurs on Titan,” explains Dr. Melissa Trainer of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland.
Trainer is a planetary scientist and astronomer who specializes in Titan and is one of the deputy principal investigators for the Dragonfly mission. It also pioneered the DraMS tool, which will scan measurements of samples of Titan’s surface material for evidence of prebiotic chemistry.
To achieve this, the Dragonfly robotic aircraft will take advantage of Titan’s low gravity and dense atmosphere to fly between different points of interest on Titan’s surface, spread out many miles apart. This allows Dragonfly to move its full suite of instruments to a new location when the previous site has been fully explored, and gives access to samples in environments with a variety of geological histories.
At each site, samples less than 1 gram in size will be drilled from the surface by means of the DraMS Acquisition of Complex Organic Matter (DrACO) auger and brought inside the lander’s main body, to a place called the “attic” that houses the DraMS instrument. There, it will be irradiated by an onboard laser or vaporized in an oven to be measured by DraMS. a mass spectrometer It is an instrument that analyzes the different chemical components of a sample by separating these components into their basic molecules and passing them through sensors for identification.
DraMS is designed to look at organic molecules Which might be present on Titan, in terms of their composition and distribution in different surface environments,” says Coach. Organic molecules contain carbon and are used by all known forms of life. They are important in understanding the formation of life because they can be created by both living and non-living processes.
A mass spectrometer determines what is in a sample by ionizing the material (that is, bombarding it with energy so that the atoms in it become positively or negatively charged) and examining the chemical composition of various compounds. This involves determining the relationship between a molecule’s weight and charge, which serves as a signature for the compound.
DraMS is developed in part by the same team at Goddard that developed Sample analysis at Mars (SAM) aboard the Curiosity rover. DraMS is designed to scan samples of Titanian’s surface material On siteusing technologies tested on Mars with the SAM group.
The coach emphasized the benefits of this heritage. Dragonfly scientists didn’t want to “reinvent the wheel” when it came to looking for organic compounds on Titan, instead relying on well-established methods that have been applied to Mars and elsewhere. “This design gave us a very flexible tool, one that can adapt to different types of surface samples,” says Trainer.
The DraMS and other science instruments on Dragonfly are being designed and built under the direction of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, which manages the NASA mission and designs and builds the spinning lander. The team includes key partners at Goddard, the French Space Agency (CNES, Paris, France), which provides a gas chromatograph module for DraMS that will provide additional separation after leaving the furnace, Lockheed Martin Space, Littleton, Colorado, NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Federal Airport in Silicon Valley, California, NASA Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, Penn State University, State College, Pennsylvania, Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, California, Honeybee Robotics, Brooklyn, New York, the German Aerospace Center (DLR), Cologne, Germany, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Tokyo, Japan.
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
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