DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Earlier this summer, NASA announced that it would fund an ambitious new mission to send a quadcopter-style drone to a moon of Saturn. This drone will leave earth in 2026, but work has already begun on it.
NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has been visiting with the team of scientists behind this mission.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: This drone will head to a moon called Titan. And the first thing to know about Titan is that it's cool - like literally, it's really cold.
ELIZABETH TURTLE: It's 94 Kelvin and negative 290 Fahrenheit.
BRUMFIEL: Zibi Turtle is head of the mission, which is being run out of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Turtle - it should come as no surprise - also thinks Titan's figuratively cool.
TURTLE: Titan is a really fascinating world. It's the largest moon of Saturn. It's the only satellite in the solar system that has a dense atmosphere. In fact, its atmosphere is denser than Earth's atmosphere
BRUMFIEL: And there's more Earthlike things about it. Titan has dunes, mountains, gullies, even rivers and lakes. Though, on Titan, it's so cold the lakes are filled with liquid methane, not water. Think of it as a little, frigid Earthlette (ph) floating around the outer solar system. And that's what has Turtle and her teams so interested.
Like Earth, Titan is home to a lot of different kinds of organic molecules. The climate's probably too harsh for those molecules to turn into life. But Turtle thinks Titan could provide clues to how life started here on Earth.
TURTLE: All of these materials have been basically doing chemistry experiments for us. And so what we want to be able to do is go pick up the results of those experiments to understand, you know, the same kinds of steps that were taken here on Earth toward life.
BRUMFIEL: But look, I haven't told you the coolest thing about Titan yet.
TURTLE: If you had a good way to keep warm and some oxygen with you to breath and put wings on, you'd be able to fly.
BRUMFIEL: What - you mean, like, flapping?
TURTLE: Exactly. A human being would be able to fly on Titan. It's that much easier to fly on Titan than it is on Earth.
BRUMFIEL: Titan's dense atmosphere and low gravity make getting off the ground a cinch. And that's why Turtle's plan is to explore with a drone rather than a rover. Down the hall from her office in a conference room, there's a giant quadcopter.
TURTLE: Sweet. I didn't know we had that - the larger one...
BRUMFIEL: This is fantastic. Look at this thing. Hi.
TURTLE: Before I forget...
DOUG ADAMS: Hey. I'm Doug Adams.
BRUMFIEL: Doug Adams is one of the lead engineers on the project. The drone he's showing me takes up the whole table. And it's only a fraction of the size of what they have in mind.
Oh, that's quarter scale?
ADAMS: That's quarter scale.
TURTLE: That's quarter scale.
BRUMFIEL: ...This thing's big.
TURTLE: It is.
BRUMFIEL: The real drone, known as Dragonfly, will be roughly the size of a compact car. Titan's distance from Earth means that nobody can fly Dragonfly by remote control. It'll have to be completely autonomous. And there's no way to recharge it, which - if you've ever owned a drone - you know needs to happen a lot. And at this point, you may be thinking what I was thinking - really?
ADAMS: Almost everyone that gets exposed to Dragonfly has a similar thought process. The first time you see it, you think, you've got to be kidding. That's crazy.
BRUMFIEL: But Adams says the mission really is possible using technology we use all the time on Earth. Quadcopter-style drones, for example, are all over the place. This one's just a little bigger. Self-driving technology is increasingly common - and bonus, it should be easy on Titan because there aren't any obstacles.
ADAMS: We make the joke, if we hit a tree then we win - right? - because, you know, we found a tree on Titan.
BRUMFIEL: Recharging is a problem, but they've got a solution for that, too - a nuclear battery. NASA actually already uses one on its Mars rover. Turtle says, as ambitious as Dragonfly sounds, it's just a bunch of old tech bolted together.
TURTLE: One of the strategies that lowers risk for a mission is to use proven technology (laughter).
BRUMFIEL: Yeah. But, I mean, you're building a nuclear-powered, self-driving drone for a moon of Saturn...
BRUMFIEL: ...So it is something new, isn't it? I mean, let's not...
ADAMS: It is...
BRUMFIEL: ...Not understate that.
ADAMS: So we won't understate that. However, as Zibi pointed out, the secret is to limit the miracles, right? We're assembling as many technologies that are already existing as possible and limiting what we have to do.
BRUMFIEL: Even Dragonfly's scientific instruments that it will use to take samples and send data back to Earth have been tested on other missions. In fact, what Adams is most worried about is something we all have at our fingertips here on Earth that he can't take to Titan.
ADAMS: We don't actually have a map. There's no GPS. There's no magnetic field even to orient yourself.
BRUMFIEL: The biggest challenge facing Dragonfly is how to find its way around. Then again, any good explorer should get a little lost, right?
Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF LANDING'S "FLUENCY OF COLORS")
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