Military Review

NASA is going to send a nuclear helicopter to Titan and ride the "Soviet" comet

The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) 20 December 2017 of the year decided on the future direction of its program called New Frontiers. The plans of the space agency during the press conference were presented by Thomas Tsurbuhen, who is the head of the NASA scientific directorate. According to him, the next automatic space station in the framework of the New Frontiers program will go either to Titan (Saturn's satellite) or to the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. To which of these two space objects, the automatic space station will go, it will be known only in 2019 year.

In the event that NASA experts choose a comet, the agency will send a spacecraft to it, which will have to take samples from its surface and then send them to Earth. This finalist project is called CAESAR. The main purpose of this mission is to collect organic compounds in order to understand how comets could contribute to the birth of life on our planet. It should be noted that earlier a Philae probe, delivered to its surface by the European station Rosetta, had already landed on the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet. However, the probe managed to transmit only telemetry to Earth, after which communication with the device was lost. At the end of September 2016, the Rosetta station was de-orbited and sent into collision with a comet.

In the event that the choice of NASA is made in favor of Titan, a Dragonfly spacecraft, which has already been called a nuclear helicopter, will be sent to its surface, but outwardly it will resemble a quadcopter. Dragonfly will have to scan Titan's surface in order to determine what exactly it consists of and how it is built. Also, the space helicopter will have to answer the question: what are the atmospheric conditions on this satellite of Saturn. Specialists from the American Space Agency believe that extraterrestrial life forms can exist on Titan.

NASA is going to send a nuclear helicopter to Titan and ride the "Soviet" comet
Titan in natural colors (Cassini photo)

The finalists of the competition for the best space mission project in the framework of the research program of the Solar System New Frontiers were two development teams, in total, 12 candidates took part in the competition. Both projects voiced above will receive approximately 4 million dollars a year to work out the details and concept. They should finalize their programs by July 2019, examine all possible risks of their missions, and then make a final proposal. The winner’s project will be launched at the end of 2025. Approximately 850 million dollars will be required for the development of each mission, the winner will receive this amount from NASA, and the agency will assume all expenses for launching the winning spacecraft into space - another approximately 150 million dollars.

According to experts, the “price tag” announced is approximately twice the cost of “light” space missions in the framework of another program - Discovery, and also 2-4 times less than the budget of the “flagship” NASA space stations and telescopes. The announced budget allows to place on the probes a rather large and extensive set of tools, as well as long-lived radioisotope power sources, but these probes will still be inferior in their capabilities and lifetime to such flagships, which were Cassini, Galileo and Voyager.

It is worth noting that in the framework of the New Frontiers program, the US space agency has already carried out three successful missions. So the Juno probe is studying the orbit of Jupiter, the New Horizons spacecraft is currently heading for Pluto, and OSIRIS-REx is flying to an asteroid to take samples from its surface. According to Thomas Zurbuhen, the agency has not yet made a decision on which launch vehicles will be used to launch one or the other mission. At the same time, he expressed confidence that by the time work began on creating the required stations and probes, the heavy SLS rocket, as well as private space “heavy vehicles”, would be ready for the launch of a new generation of interplanetary American probes.

Nuclear helicopter on Titan - DragonFly mission

“Titan is a unique celestial body with a dense atmosphere, lakes and real seas of hydrocarbons, the circulation of substances and a complex climate. We expect to continue the work of Cassini and Huygens in order to understand whether all the "bricks of life" are on the surface of Titan and whether life can exist on it. Unlike other landing modules, our “dragonfly” will be able to fly from place to place, traveling hundreds of kilometers, ”said Elizabeth Turtle, head of the DragonFly mission.

Comparison of the size of the Earth, Titan (bottom left) and the Moon

Titan is the largest satellite of Saturn and the second largest satellite in the entire Solar System (second only to Jupiter’s satellite Ganymede). Also, Titan is the only body, with the exception of the Earth, in the Solar System, for which a stable existence of liquid on its surface has been proved, as well as the only satellite of the planet, which has a dense atmosphere. All this makes Titan a very attractive object for various research and study.

The diameter of this satellite of Saturn is 5152 kilometers, which is 50% more than that of the Moon, while Titan is 80% more than the satellite of our planet in mass. Also, Titan is larger than the planet Mercury in size. Gravity on Titan is about one seventh of gravity. The surface of the satellite consists mainly of water ice and sedimentary organic matter. The pressure at the surface of Titan is approximately 1,5 times higher than the pressure at the earth's surface, the air temperature at the surface is -170 .. -180 degrees Celsius. Despite the relatively low temperature, this satellite is mapped to Earth in the early stages of its development. Therefore, scientists do not exclude that the existence of the simplest life forms is possible on Titan, in particular, in the existing underground reservoirs, in which conditions can be much more comfortable than on its surface.

Dragonfly - the brainchild of scientists from Johns Hopkins University, it will be a universal landing gear, equipped with several propellers that will provide him with the possibility of vertical takeoff and landing. In the future, this will allow an unusual helicopter to explore the surface and atmosphere of Titan. “One of our main goals is to conduct research on methane rivers and lakes. We want to understand what is going on in their depths, ”said Elizabeth Turtle, the head of the Dragonfly mission. “In general, our main task is to shed light on the mysterious environment of the satellite of Saturn, which is rich in organic and prebiotic chemistry. After all, Titan today is a kind of planetary laboratory at which chemical reactions similar to those that could have caused life on Earth could be studied. ”

Such a project, if it won the competition in the 2019 year, will be very unusual and new even for NASA. Thanks to its two features, the Dragonfly unit will be able to move from place to place. The first is the presence of a nuclear power plant, which will provide it with energy for a very long time. The second is a set of several powerful engines with propellers that can lift a heavy research apparatus into the dense air of Titan. All this makes Dragonfly something like helicopters or quadrocopters, with the only exception that a space nuclear helicopter will be designed to operate in much more severe conditions than earthly ones.

Dragonfly nuclear helicopter on Titan's surface, NASA illustration

Experts note that this drone will be fully supplied with energy produced by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG). The fairly dense and thick atmosphere of Titan makes any technology ineffective in converting solar energy into electrical energy, which is why nuclear energy will become the basic source of energy for the mission. A similar generator is installed on the Curiosity rover. During the night, such a generator will be able to fully charge the batteries of the drone, which will help the aircraft to make one or several flights at once, for a total duration of up to one hour.

It is known that the Dragonfly toolkit is planned to include: gamma-spectrometers that can study the composition of the subsurface layer of Titan (this device will help scientists find evidence of the presence of liquid ocean beneath the surface of the satellite); mass spectrometers to analyze the isotopic composition of light elements (such as nitrogen, carbon, sulfur, and others); geophysical and meteorological sensors that will measure atmospheric pressure, temperature, wind speed, seismic activity; it will also have cameras for taking pictures. The mobility of the “nuclear helicopter” will allow it to quickly collect various samples and perform the necessary measurements.

During the entire one hour flight, this unit will be able to overcome the distance from 10 to 20 kilometers. That is, in just one flight, the DragonFly drone will be able to overcome a greater distance than the American Curiosity Mars Rover managed for the 4 of his year on the red planet. And for its entire two-year mission, a “nuclear helicopter” will be able to explore a rather impressive section of the surface of the satellite of Saturn. Due to the presence on board of a powerful power plant, the data from the device, according to Turtle, will be transmitted to Earth directly.

If the project wins the competition and receives final approval from the New Frontiers Solar System research program, the mission will launch in the middle of 2025. At the same time, DragonFly will arrive at Titan only in 2034, where, with favorable developments, he will work on its surface for several years.

On the way to the "Soviet" comet - the mission of CAESAR

The second mission, which is currently claiming victory in the New Frontiers competition, could be the CAESAR probe, the first NASA spacecraft, which will take samples of volatile substances and organic matter from the comet's surface and then return back to Earth. “Comets can be called the most important, but at the same time the least studied objects in the solar system. Comets contain the substances from which the Earth was “molded”, and they were also the main suppliers of organic matter for our planet. What distinguishes comets from other known bodies of the solar system? The comets still contain volatile substances that were in the solar system at the time of its birth, ”said Steve Squires, head of the CAESAR mission.

Snapshot of Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko taken by 19 September 2014 of the Rosetta camera

According to Jim Green, the head of the NASA Department of Planetology, this mission will be sent to a very well-studied comet, in the vicinity of which another probe has already been visited, this is a European mission called Rosetta. The comet with the 67P index is called “Soviet”, since it was discovered by Soviet astronomers. This is a short-period comet with an orbital period of approximately 6 years and 7 months. Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko was discovered in the USSR on October 23 1969 of the year. It was discovered by the Soviet astronomer Klim Churyumov in Kiev on photographic plates of another comet - 32P / Comas Sola, which were shot by Svetlana Gerasimenko in September of the same year at the Alma-Ata observatory (the first picture, on which the new comet was seen, was made on September 11 1969 of the year ). The 67P index means that we face the 67-i open short-period comet.

It is established that the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko has a porous structure, 75-78% of its volume is emptiness. On the illuminated side of the comet, the temperature ranges from -183 to -143 degrees Celsius. There is no permanent magnetic field on the comet. According to recent estimates, its mass is 10 billion tons (measurement error is estimated at 10%), the rotation period is 12 hours 24 minutes. In the 2014 year, using the Rosette apparatus, scientists were able to find 16 molecules of organic compounds on a comet, four of which — acetone, propanal, methyl isocyanate, and acetamide — were not previously found on comets.

According to representatives of the US space agency, the choice of the CAESAR mission, which is sent to a well-studied comet, will kill three birds with one stone - this makes the mission safer, reduces its cost, and also speeds up its launch. According to Squires, the installation of a capsule for collecting and returning earth from the comet will play its role. This capsule was previously created by the Japanese space agency for the Hayabus probe. “The choice of this capsule is explained by the fact that for the CAESAR mission a capsule was needed, which would continue to keep volatile substances from the comet frozen during the entire flight, until it touches the earth's surface. The capsule for the Hayabus probe has a thermal shield that prevents it from heating to several hundred degrees Celsius, which could happen when using our technologies, ”said the American scientist.

Possible view of CAESAR probe, NASA illustration

According to NASA plans, the CAESAR probe is planned to be equipped with an ion engine. It will reach the surface of comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko relatively quickly. Samples of its matter, Steve Squires hopes, could be on Earth in 2038.

Information sources:
Open source materials

The editorial board of Voenniy Obozreniye urgently needs a proofreader. Requirements: impeccable knowledge of the Russian language, diligence, discipline. Contact: [email protected]

Dear reader, to leave comments on the publication, you must to register.

I have an account? Sign in

  1. corporal
    corporal 22 December 2017 06: 26 New
    But about such travels and we once dreamed .... request
    the launch of the mission will take place in mid-2025. At the same time, DragonFly will arrive at Titan only in 2034,

    And many of us will not see this. recourse It is a pity.
    1. Chertt
      Chertt 22 December 2017 08: 29 New
      I would like to hear from Roscosmos about our promising projects. Inadequate funding and the like we have already heard. But does Russia have development directions?
      1. Tsoy
        Tsoy 22 December 2017 08: 43 New
        Quote: Chertt
        But does Russia have development directions?

        Moon with projects Luna-25, Luna-26, Luna-27, Luna-28. ExoMars 2020 in partnership with ESA. DSG with NASA. Nothing ambitious before 2030 will be.
        1. Plate
          Plate 22 December 2017 10: 23 New
          They promise to make a nuclear electric propulsion system by the end of this decade yet.
          1. Anyone
            Anyone 24 December 2017 00: 20 New
            Seriously? Dragging Glushko Valentin Petrovich and all the designers of “Daisies” in a coffin turned over from such “news”))
            1. Plate
              Plate 24 December 2017 10: 47 New
              What did I say that?
              1. Anyone
                Anyone 24 December 2017 10: 56 New
                I meant that this has already been implemented.
      2. Lexus
        Lexus 22 December 2017 12: 34 New
        I would like to hear from Roskosmos

        I would like to SEE. In Roskosmos they still learned to speak, but apparently forgot how to do ...
      3. opus
        opus 22 December 2017 12: 44 New
        Quote: Chertt
        I would like to hear from Roscosmos about our promising projects.

        Let it be for now
        Finally, the cause of the accident "Frigate"
        Unfortunately, the overclocking unit only once, before the start, decided which way to turn it to, and did not update the algorithm of its actions. As a result, when the rocket turned at 174 degrees, they added to the angle at which the booster was about to turn. At the time of separation, the error was 363 ° (174 ° + 175 ° = 349 °, obviously, the missile maneuvers not mentioned were added), however, instead of recounting the direction of movement, the accelerating block went a long way. The “frigate” can rotate at a speed of up to one degree per second, and a minute before turning on the engine, it managed to turn clockwise in 55 degrees. The gained rotation speed led to the fact that within a minute of the first engine start-up the unit actually slowed down, and therefore fell earlier than the third stage.
        ALEX_SHTURMAN 22 December 2017 14: 11 New
        Unfortunately, so far “effective managers” are at the helm of Roscosmos, and not enthusiasts, visionaries, dreaming engineers, it will be like that .. It seems as if the Roscosmos leadership is not at all interested in further exploration of outer space, we even have normal money for a telescope NO .. Che there to talk about Interplanetary stations .. recourse request
        1. Chertt
          Chertt 22 December 2017 14: 33 New
          Quote: ALEX_SHTURMAN
          Unfortunately, so far “effective managers” are at the helm of Roscosmos, and not so enthusiasts, visionaries, dreaming engineers.

          I completely agree, neither diminish nor add. Space is an idea, a dream. And if you want to earn loot, go oil barges
        2. Anyone
          Anyone 24 December 2017 00: 23 New
          Do not flatter yourself - effective managers are at the head of everything that is connected with cutting grandmas (crossed out) with budget financing.
  2. Nix1986
    Nix1986 22 December 2017 07: 29 New
    It seems to me that you need to focus on the colonization of the moon as an experimental site and work out many decisions before the Mars, most of the funds should be directed to this. From missions to other planets for the study of only scientific experience, there is no practical benefit there.
    1. FID
      FID 22 December 2017 08: 07 New
      The Chinese are doing so ... But, we are the "great cosmic ..." Where are we? Question to our "patriots" - where are WE?
      1. Nix1986
        Nix1986 22 December 2017 08: 49 New
        I was more pissed off by this news "". Do not want to invest in space, enough from oil to the villas - so do not bother others damn it. Commercialization of the industry will dramatically accelerate progress in it.
      2. corporal
        corporal 22 December 2017 10: 24 New
        Quote: SSI
        Question to our "patriots" - where are WE?

        We joke about trampolines, and turn spacecraft into bathyscaphes. request
    2. Plate
      Plate 22 December 2017 10: 26 New
      I agree with you. Moreover, as for me, existing technologies, albeit not as effective as we would like, can ensure that a person stays on the moon for a short period of time (the main thing is to fly away on time so that the radiation dose is not too large). But even this will be a great experience for humanity if a person creates a refuge for himself, even if not the best, on another celestial body.
      1. Nix1986
        Nix1986 22 December 2017 10: 46 New
        The main thing is to work out the experience of building dwellings on other planets underground, as far as it shields from space radiation, and many nuances. You can even try to get the same Helium 3 and recapture part of the cost of these missions. But ... we are where we are.
        1. Plate
          Plate 22 December 2017 13: 30 New
          I do not see the need for the extraction of helium-3 at this stage. A waste of money will be. There are still no fusion reactors. Here it would be possible to send geologists there for a more detailed study of the chemical composition of the lunar surface in place. But still, the initial task is to learn how to organize shelters for people in such places, yes.
          1. Nix1986
            Nix1986 22 December 2017 13: 41 New
            I said helium 3 as an example, and yes, to work out the issues of construction, accommodation and supplies as much as possible and to commercialize this industry faster so that the business starts investing.
  3. PlotnikoffDD
    PlotnikoffDD 22 December 2017 07: 54 New
    the New Horizons spacecraft is currently heading towards Pluto,
    Who wrote this? At first I thought that the article was five years ago.
    1. FID
      FID 22 December 2017 08: 10 New
      The NASA program is called - The New Frontier, it's just that ours are a little late, I'm sorry ...
  4. Tsoy
    Tsoy 22 December 2017 08: 44 New
    New Horizons is currently heading towards Pluto.

    He has already flown to the asteroid belt.
    1. FID
      FID 22 December 2017 09: 46 New
      Quote: Choi
      He has already flown to the asteroid belt.

      Yes, what are you? And I, I thought, that the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and the New Horizons is already in the Oort Cloud or in the Kuiper Belt (rather in Kuiper ..) ...
      1. Tsoy
        Tsoy 22 December 2017 17: 57 New
        Quote: SSI
        The Oort Cloud or Coiper Belt (most likely in Kuipert ...) ...

        Of course to the Kuiper Belt. My mistake.

        Having completed its mission to study Pluto, the station New Horizons went to the Kuiper belt. Its main purpose is the 2014 MU69 object, which is about 45 kilometers across. It is located in the Kuiper belt, a little-studied region of the Solar system from the orbit of Neptune (30, a.e., from the Sun) to a distance of about 55, a.e. from the sun.

        Like the asteroid belt, the Kuiper belt consists of small bodies: the material remaining after the formation of the solar system. Unlike asteroid belt objects, which are mainly formed by rocks and metals, Kuiper belt objects are volatile substances such as methane, ammonia and water. Since the belt was opened in 1992, the number of known objects has exceeded one thousand; even more 70 000 with a diameter over 100 km has not yet been discovered.

        Convergence with 2014 MU69 should occur 1 January 2019 year. On the way to it, the station continues to collect data on other celestial bodies. 2 November 2015 of the year, the first photographs of the Kuiper belt’s internal object were obtained from a relatively close distance: the station photographed an 1994 JR1 object with a diameter of 150 kilometers, moving against a background of stars. At the time of the shooting, New Horizons were located in 280 millions of kilometers from 1994 JR1 and 5,3 a billion kilometers from the Sun.
        1. Andrey787
          Andrey787 30 November 2018 13: 18 New
          Before the flight, 31 days and somewhere 36 million km !!!
          See you soon !!!
  5. Whowhy
    Whowhy 22 December 2017 08: 51 New
    If the atmospheric pressure on Titan is 1,5 times higher than on Earth, then the density of the atmosphere, respectively, is the same times higher. On the one hand, along with low gravity, this requires less engine power, and on the other, such a “suitcase” as in the picture will blow like a fluff ....
    1. Anyone
      Anyone 24 December 2017 00: 33 New
      The density of the air will be higher than that of nitrogen. And on Titan, the atmosphere is nitrogen.
      1. astepanov
        astepanov 10 January 2018 18: 23 New
        The density of nitrogen and air is almost the same - firstly, because air is basically nitrogen, and secondly because the molecular masses of oxygen and nitrogen differ slightly (32:28).
  6. UVB
    UVB 22 December 2017 09: 41 New
    New Horizons spacecraft is currently heading for Pluto
    Outdated information. The device came closest to Pluto on July 14, 2015, and is currently moving towards one of the objects in the Kuiper belt.
  7. Ural resident
    Ural resident 22 December 2017 11: 57 New
    Very interesting.
    At one time, enthusiastically read books of the 60-70s about our expeditions.
    Particularly interesting were the expeditions of our probes to Venus.
    Well, Voyager, of course
    It seemed another 20-30 years and all the secrets of the nearest planets will be revealed.
  8. sa-ag
    sa-ag 22 December 2017 12: 16 New
    RTG + batteries + electric motors?
  9. zzdimk
    zzdimk 22 December 2017 18: 01 New
    Who advised reading a book about the lunar apocalypse? Isaac Asimov with his Establishment is much cooler! And this opus about the fragments of the moon is turbidity.
    1. Days
      Days 23 December 2017 10: 31 New
      And when Isaac Asimov and Arthur Clark are over - go to Alastair Reynolds. A worthy successor to science fiction.
  10. da Vinci
    da Vinci 23 December 2017 11: 01 New
    I just can’t understand: why are the Merdyukovs, Chubais, RoGozins, Medvedevs so tenacious in power? Why are they especially valuable ??? It happens that geniuses get along, but these geniuses have never been (well, except for the red one with vouchers) recourse ? Unfortunately, I often recall historical parallels when they said that Nick 2 did not know anything, and that was all his court camarilla. No, no, I’m not campaigning for a horse or a loud one - It’s just a shame for such a large country with a huge number of smart people. request
  11. CTABEP
    CTABEP 25 December 2017 18: 44 New
    Kmk, a little off topic VO, but the article is excellent! It is a pity, of course, that these are not our plans, but still for humanity as a whole, this will be a significant milestone in space exploration. The "nuclear" copter was doubly pleased, just a car from my childhood dreams :).
  12. Stilet
    Stilet 2 January 2018 20: 14 New
    It is unfortunate that others, not us, collect information and know for the time being the near space enriched with Knowledge and technologies, which they will then use in their development.
  13. Andrey787
    Andrey787 30 November 2018 13: 47 New
    Thank you, the article is interesting !!!

    But a few questions arise ???

    1) Why fly to Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko ???
    She has already been thoroughly studied. There are millions more of other comets - not studied ...

    2) Why create a quadrocopter for Titanium ???
    A fairly complex mechanism i.e.
    a) very expensive to develop, in relation to such a space program (positioned as cheap),
    b) the probability of failure and failure of the mission is very high.

    “It seems easier, cheaper, and much more efficient (we’ll get more data) if you create an orbiter, you can simultaneously study Saturn with other satellites.”

    - Well, if you want to get onto Titan itself, then again the balloon mission seems to me: cheaper, easier, more reliable and quite informative. By the way, from a balloon, you can drop it into interesting places - micro probes (low-living and cheap), the size and weight of a tablet or wristwatch, to determine the chemical and physical parameters of landing places and transfer data directly to the balloon, to simplify the probes (you can use them also to do, to study the seas, rivers, currents, unrest, etc. or part of immersed, to study the bottom), there are many options !!!