NASA reveals how it will drill into Titan, Saturn's moon, to find traces of life

NASA's new Dragonfly mission will be launched

to Saturn's giant moon Titan in 2027. The probe will arrive in the middle

2030s and the data it will collectwill lead to a new understanding of the development of life in the solar system and the universe. On board the spacecraft will be the Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer (DraMS), designed to study prebiotic chemistry on Titan.

Abundant complex, carbon-rich chemicalSaturn's moon's composition, inland ocean, and past surface liquid water make it an ideal location for studying potential extraterrestrial habitability.

The main thing is that DraMS will allow scientists on Earthto remotely study the chemical composition of the surface of Titan. "We want to know if there is a chemical process going on there that could be important for early pre-biochemical systems on Earth," explains Dr. Melissa Trainer of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, on the agency's blog. She is a planetary and astrobiologist specializing in Titan and is one of the deputy principal investigators for the Dragonfly mission. She also runs the DraMS instrument, which will scan samples of material from the surface of Saturn's moon for evidence of prebiotic chemistry.

For research robotic rotorcraftDragonfly will use Titan's low gravity and dense atmosphere to fly between key points on the surface several kilometers apart. This will allow Dragonfly to move the entire toolbox to a new location when the previous one is fully explored. It will also provide access to samples in environments with diverse geological histories.

At each site, a drill for collecting complexorganic matter (DrACO) will collect sub-gram samples and deliver them inside the lander's main body to what NASA calls the "attic" where the DraMS instrument is located. There they will be irradiated with an onboard laser or vaporized in an oven to be measured with DraMS. A mass spectrometer is an instrument that analyzes the various chemical components of a sample, separating those components into their basic molecules and passing them through sensors for identification.

"DraMS is designed to study organicmolecules that may be present on Titan, their composition and distribution in various surface environments,” Trainer explains. Organic molecules contain carbon and are used by all known life forms.

Mass spectrometers determine what is insample, by ionizing the material (that is, bombarding it with energy so that the atoms in it become positively or negatively charged) and by examining the chemical composition of various compounds. For example, determining the relationship between the weight of a molecule and its charge, which serves as a characteristic feature of a compound.

DraMS was partially developed by the same team at the CenterGoddard Space Mission, which created the Mars Sample Analysis (SAM) toolkit aboard the Curiosity rover. DraMS is designed to examine samples of Titan's surface material in situ, using techniques proven on Mars with the SAM complex.

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