June 28, 2019 / 6:02 AM / 18 days ago

NASA to send drone to Saturn's moon for clues on human origins

An image of four moons of Saturn passing in front of their parent planet in seen this image taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope February 24, 2009 and released by NASA March 17, 2009. In this view, the giant orange moon Titan casts a large shadow onto Saturn's north polar hood. Below Titan, near the ring plane and to the left, is the moon Mimas, casting a much smaller shadow onto Saturn's equatorial cloud tops. Farther to the left, and off Saturn's disk, are the bright moons Dione and the fainter Enceladus. REUTERS/NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)/Handout/Files

(Reuters) - NASA plans to send a drone named Dragonfly to Saturn’s biggest moon, Titan, the agency said Thursday, announcing the space agency’s latest high-profile mission to explore the solar system for clues on humanity’s origins.

“Today I am proud to announce that our next New Frontiers mission, Dragonfly, will explore Saturn’s largest moon, Titan,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a video teleconference.

Dragonfly, a golf-cart sized drone with four propellers, will embark on an eight-year mission in 2026 to Titan, a moon orbiting the gaseous planet Saturn known for its similarity to Earth’s early characteristics and research potential for studying the origins of life.

The nuclear-powered Dragonfly will be the first drone lander with the capability to fly over 100 miles through Titan’s thick atmosphere, Bridenstine said.

“Titan is unlike any other place in our solar system, and the most comparable to early Earth,” he added.

Dragonfly’s instruments will evaluate Titan’s habitability and search for chemical signatures of past or even present life, Bridenstine said.

Dragonfly is the fourth solar system exploration mission selected under NASA’s New Frontiers program, a series of missions including the New Horizons probe launched in 2006 to study Pluto and OSIRIS-REx, which launched in 2016 to study the rocky asteroid Bennu.

Reporting by Joey Roulette; editing by Bill Tarrant and James Dalgleish

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