Elizabeth Tuttle was overjoyed when she received a call from NASA on June 26: her project to send a drone helicopter to Titan, Saturn's largest moon, was given the green light and a budget of nearly a billion dollars.
But the launch of "Dragonfly" will not take place before 2026 ̵
"It will not take long, it will take a long time," says "Zibi" Turtle, 52, a planetologist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, a huge research center outside Washington that employs 7,000 people.
The 1,323-pound drone does not land on Titan – approximately 1.6 billion kilometers from Earth until 2034.
"The outer solar system is a distant place," Turtle explains quietly. She seems surprised that she is actually asked about the length of interplanetary travel.
"It definitely requires some patience to explore the outer solar system."
The pace of planetology is not that of most other scientific disciplines. The distances are so far and the robots we send to cross them are so high that researchers devote their lives to just a handful of missions.
Zibi Turtle was taught at MIT and the University of Arizona and recalls the first fugitive images of Titan taken in the 1990s by the Hubble Space Telescope. The researcher was one of the first to receive close-up photographs of Titan taken in 2004 by the Cassini probe launched seven years earlier.
"It was fascinating to see clouds on another planet," recalls Turtle. "And we had no idea what was on the surface, we could only see dark and light areas."
The European Huygens probe that Cassini had dropped to the surface was able to send her pictures before she died. The world stared in astonishment at the riverbeds that crossed the Titan's surface. "That was a real breakthrough," adds Turtle.
In the next few years Titan took shape: a strange celestial body with surface temperatures of about -179 degrees Celsius. It is larger than Mercury and our moon, with an ice crust that is traversed by rivers and lakes with liquid methane.
Winds are blowing, clouds are moving, and it is raining (methane) over the valleys, dunes and mountains that make up the lunar surface. Cold volcanoes could even spew water as lava.
A Primitive Earth
"This is so weird, is not it because Titanium has so many different materials, and yet it has a very earth-like geology." Turtle muses.
Scientists believe that the conditions on Titan are similar to those on Earth before the first lifeforms appeared. They suggest that liquid methane could play the same role as water in the leap between chemistry and biology.
Dragonfly, which serves as a small chemical laboratory, will fly from place to place for years looking for carbon. based molecules – what researchers call the building blocks of life.
The molecules collected from an ancient river may be different from those that never got wet. All traces of the prehistory of the earth have been deleted. Titan could offer a time travel.
And if Dragonfly does not find anything?
"We will not learn anything from Titan in any case," she says without a trace of doubt. "No matter what we find, it will tell us something."
Planet research has taught Turtle that "the solar system is more creative than our imagination."
"There are always surprises," she adds.
Dragonfly's development and construction must be completed before launch: four sets of rotors, a miniature nuclear generator, a lithium-ion battery, 10 cameras, two sampling taps, and four scientific instruments.
Hundreds of scientists and engineers from various institutions are involved in the project.
Chief engineer Ken Hibbard worked countless nights and weekends for months. He knows he's getting old with the project.
"You invest so much time and energy, a bit of your soul flows into each of these concepts," he says.
"There are more than two of us, hundreds of people coming together and letting things happen, and nobody wants to let anyone down."
He will most likely be in the control room in 2026. Zibi Turtle also wants to be there in person to help.
"That would be the plan," she says.
NASA will fly a drone to Titan to search for life
© 2019 AFP
The mission of a lifetime: a drone on Titan in 2034 (2019, 4th of July)
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