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NASA decides to send a nuclear drone to Titan

Dragonfly probe
An artist’s conception shows the Dragonfly probe on the dunes of Titan. (NASA / JHUAPL Illustration)

NASA has chosen to commit up to $850 million to creating an interplanetary probe unlike any seen before: a rotor-equipped spacecraft that will fly through the smoggy atmosphere of Titan, Saturn’s biggest moon.

The Dragonfly mission will be managed by Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory on NASA’s behalf, with its launch scheduled for 2026 on a rocket to be named later, and its landing due amid the dunes of Titan in 2034.

This won’t be the first landing on Titan: That happened back in 2005, when the Cassini spacecraft dropped off the Huygens lander to send back the first pictures from the moon’s cloud-obscured surface. Observations from Cassini and Huygens confirmed that chilly Titan held rivers and lakes of liquid methane and ethane, and that methane fell like rain on the icy terrain.

“Titan is the only other place in the solar system known to have an Earthlike cycle of liquids flowing across its surface,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, said in a tweet. “Dragonfly will explore the processes that shape this extraordinary environment filled with organic compounds – the building blocks to life as we know it.”

Today’s announcement was the climax of a years-long process to choose the next mission for NASA’s New Horizons portfolio, which supports projects costing no more than $850 million. Past selections include the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, the Juno mission to Jupiter. and the OSIRIS-REx mission to bring back a sample from asteroid Bennu.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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