Physics Colloquium

10/03/2019 3:30 pm
110 Physical Sciences


Dragonfly: NASA's Rotorcraft Lander Mission to Saturn's Moon Titan

Jason Barnes
Department of Physics
University of Idaho



NASA recently selected the Dragonfly quadcopter, on which I serve as Deputy Principal Investigator, as the fourth mission in its New Frontiers program of planetary missions. Dragonfly will land on the surface of Saturn's hazy moon Titan to explore prebiotic chemistry, to evaluate its habitability, and look for chemical biosignatures.  Titan is one of just 4 planetary bodies that has both a thick atmosphere and a solid surface -- Venus, Earth, and Mars are the others.  Among these, only Titan and Earth have active hydrological cycles with clouds, rain, and surface lakes and seas, though Titan's contain methane and ethane instead of water.  I will discuss the present state of our knowledge about Titan's geology, chemistry, and meteorology, as well as discussion the Dragonfly mission and how it will answer outstanding questions.  (1) How far has prebiotic chemistry progressed toward life?  (2) What potentially habitable biomes might Titan possess, both with respect to water-based life and methane/ethane-based "life, but not as we know it"?  And (3) is there chemical evidence for past or extant life on Titan?

Bio:  Barnes studies the physics of planets and planetary systems. He uses NASA spacecraft data to study planets that orbit stars other than the Sun and the composition and nature of the surface of Saturn's moon Titan. He is deputy principal investigator on the Dragonfly mission proposal to NASA, which would send a robotic rotorcraft lander to explore Titan.  He received his BS degree from Caltech in Astronomy in 1998, and his PhD from the University of Arizona in Planetary Science in 2004.  He has been a Professor of Physics at the University of Idaho since 2008.