NASA took lessons from the innovative Ingenuity Mars helicopter to create a more complex flying machine to explore Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.
While the Ingenuity has one rotor and is only 19.3 inches tall, the Dragonfly has eight rotors and is the size of a small car.
A research team led by Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Maryland benefited from Titan’s thick atmosphere, which would be easier to fly through than Mars’ much thinner atmosphere. Its low gravity will also help the flying machine stay in the air.
In an update on Dragonfly’s development progress, NASA’s Patricia Talbert said the mission team has been making regular visits to the space agency’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, to test Dragonfly’s flight systems in the facility’s various wind tunnels, gathering data that helps it perfecting the aircraft design.
On its final trip to NASA Langley, the team tested the half-scale Dragonfly while focusing on two specific flight configurations: the Dragonfly’s descent and transition to powered flight after reaching Titan, and forward flight over the lunar surface.
“We tested conditions across the expected flight range at a wide range of wind speeds, rotor speeds and flight angles to assess the vehicle’s aerodynamic performance,” test lead Bernadine Juliano of APL said in a release. “We completed more than 700 total runs, covering more than 4,000 individual data points. All test objectives were successfully achieved and the data will help increase confidence in our simulation models on Earth before extrapolating to Titan conditions.”
Dragonfly is NASA’s only mission to the surface of another ocean. It is expected to reach Titan in 2034 after launching from Earth in 2027. Titan has some similarities to early Earth and scientists hope that with its array of cameras, sensors and samplers, Dragonfly will be able to make discoveries that tell us how life was. perhaps starting on our own planet.
“With Dragonfly, we are turning science fiction into exploration fact,” said Ken Hibbard, Dragonfly mission systems engineer at APL. “This mission is proceeding in a unified manner, and we are excited for every next step in sending this revolutionary helicopter across the skies and surface of Titan.”