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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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OceanGate sets titanic record with 4-person dive

OceanGate Titan crew
The crew of OceanGate’s Titan submersible gets set for a dive of Titanic proportions. From left are Karl Stanley, Petros Mathioudakis, pilot Stockton Rush and Joel Perry. (OceanGate Photo)

OceanGate set a deep-diving record last week when a crew of four rode inside the Everett, Wash.-based company’s Titan submersible to the Titanic-level depth of 3,760 meters (12,336 feet) in the Bahamas.

The April 17 voyage, which served as a test run for this summer’s trips to the wreck of the Titanic, marked the first time a non-military submersible carried more than three people to that depth, OceanGate said.

“This dive was another important step toward deep-sea exploration to more people and places,” OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush, who served as Titan’s chief pilot for the trip, said today in a news release. “We are developing technologies and designing submersibles and infrastructure that is making underwater exploration more accessible than ever before.”

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OceanGate gears up for Titanic dive rehearsals

OceanGate Titan sub
OceanGate’s Titan submersible is designed to withstand pressures at Titanic depths. (OceanGate Photo)

Everett, Wash.-based OceanGate is heading back down to the Bahamas next week to practice deep-sea dives of Titanic proportions with its next-generation Titan submersible — and this time, team members are bringing along paying customers.

About 10 mission specialists wll accompany OceanGate’s team for rehearsals that will involve sending Titan down to depths of nearly 4,000 meters (13,000 feet). That’s as far down as the famous wreck of the Titanic lies in the North Atlantic.

This month’s rehearsal follows up on a series of deep dives done by OceanGate last year. The plan doesn’t call for mission specialists to climb into the submersible this time around, OceanGate marketing manager Dana Hall told GeekWire. Instead, they’ll be on the R/V Angari, the expedition’s tracking and communications ship.

The goal is to familiarize at least some of OceanGate’s customers with the duties they’ll be performing when Titan and its support vessels head up to Newfoundland for 10-day voyages to the Titanic site that are due to start in June.

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OceanGate reschedules Titanic sub trips for 2019

Titan sub
OceanGate’s Titan submersible is undergoing testing in the Bahamas. (OceanGate Photo via Twitter)

OceanGate is putting its underwater trips to the Titanic shipwreck on hold for a year, due to difficulties encountered during deep-water testing of its submersible in the Bahamas.

The Titan sub’s first trips to the world’s most famous shipwreck had been set to start next month in the North Atlantic. This week, team leaders at the Everett, Wash.-based venture decided they couldn’t make the schedule.

“While we are disappointed by the need to reschedule the expedition, we are not willing to shortcut the testing process due to a condensed timeline,” OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush said today in a news release. “We are 100 percent committed to safety, and want to fully test the sub and validate all operational and emergency procedures before launching any expedition.”

Making the decision now gives advance notice for OceanGate’s clients, crew members, partners and affiliates to make other plans for the summer, Rush said.

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Go to a comet? Or Titan? NASA sets up showdown

Dragonfly probe
An artist’s conception shows the sequence leading to the landing of the Dragonfly probe and the deployment of its rotorcraft on Titan. (NASA Illustration)

A rotorcraft that could flit around the Saturnian moon Titan and a probe that could bring a sample back from an already-famous comet have emerged as top prospects for a future NASA mission.

Those two mission concepts were selected for further study from a list of 12 proposals that were submitted for NASA’s New Frontiers portfolio, aimed at space missions with a development cost cap of about $850 million.

Examples of existing New Frontiers projects include the Juno orbiter circling Jupiter, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft that’s on its way to sample a near-Earth asteroid, and the New Horizons probe that flew past Pluto and is now heading toward another icy object on the edge of the solar system.

A showdown is expected to result in one of the two new mission concepts moving onward to its development phase in 2019, NASA said today.

Both concepts call for robotic probes to be launched in the 2020s and yield results in the 2030s.

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Saturn probe will go out in a blaze of science

Cassini orbiter
An artist’s conception shows the Cassini orbiter zooming through the upper layers of Saturn’s atmosphere, heading for a fiery breakup. (NASA / JPL-Caltech Illustration)

Twenty years after its launch to Saturn, NASA has set the Cassini orbiter on a course for certain destruction on Sept. 15 – but there’s a decidedly positive spin to the $3.3 billion mission’s end.

“We’ll be saddened, there’s no doubt about it, at the loss of such an incredible machine,” Cassini program manager Earl Maize said Sept. 13 during a news briefing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “But I think all of us are going to have a great sense of pride in .. a little bit corny, perhaps … a ‘mission accomplished.’”

The bus-sized, plutonium-powered spacecraft was launched in 1997 and reached Saturn seven years later. It’s logged 4.9 billion miles, sent back nearly half a million images of the ringed planet and its moons, and transmitted 635 gigabytes worth of scientific data so far.

It’ll continue sending data all the way to the end, when it’s expected to break apart and burn up in the upper levels of Saturn’s atmosphere.

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