BALTIMORE – Elizabeth Tuttle was overjoyed when, on June 26, she received a call from NASA: her project to send a drone copter to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, was given the green light and a budget of nearly $1 billion.
But the launch of Dragonfly won’t happen until 2026 — surely a frustrating detail, given she has been working on the project for 15 years.
“It’s not going to feel like a long time, it’s gonna go very quickly,” says “Zibi” Turtle, 52, a planetologist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, a massive research center outside Washington that employs 7,000 people.
The 1,323-pound drone won’t land on Titan — about 1 billion miles (1.6 billion km) from Earth until 2034.
“The outer solar system is a distant place,” Turtle explains calmly. She seems surprised she’s actually being asked about the length of interplanetary voyages.
“It definitely takes a certain amount of patience to explore the outer solar system.”
The pace of planetology is nothing like that of most other scientific disciplines. The distances are so far, and the robots we send to cross them so sophisticated, that researchers will dedicate their lives to a mere handful of missions.
Educated at MIT and the University of Arizona, Zibi Turtle remembers the first cursory images of Titan, taken by the Hubble space telescope in the 1990s. The researcher was among the first people to receive close-up photos of Titan taken in 2004 by the Cassini probe — which had been launched seven years prior.
“That was fascinating, to see clouds on another planet,” Turtle recalls. “And we had no idea what was on the surface. We could just see dark and bright areas.”
The European Huygens probe, dropped to the surface by Cassini, managed to send its images before dying. The world stared, stupefied, at riverbeds crossing Titan’s surface. “That was a real breakthrough,” Turtle adds.
Over the next few years, Titan began to take shape: a strange celestial body with surface temperatures of around minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 179 degrees Celsius). It’s larger than both Mercury and our Moon, with a crust made of ice and crossed by rivers and lakes of flowing liquid methane.
Winds blow, clouds move, and it rains (methane) over the valleys, dunes and mountains that make up the moon’s surface. Cold volcanoes might even spew water as their lava.
“That’s what so strange, right? Because Titan has such different materials. And yet, it has a very Earth-like geology,” Turtle muses.
Scientists believe that conditions on Titan are similar to those on Earth, before the first life forms appeared. They suspect the liquid methane could play the same role as water in making the jump between chemistry and biology.
Dragonfly, which will serve as a mini-chemical laboratory, will fly from one site to another for years, searching for carbon-based molecules — what researchers call life’s building blocks.
The molecules collected from an ancient river may be different from those that never got wet. All traces of Earth’s primitive history have been erased. Titan could offer a journey through time.
And if Dragonfly finds nothing?
“There’s no way we won’t learn something from Titan,” she says without a trace of doubt. “No matter what we find, it will tell us something.”
Planetary exploration has taught Turtle that “the solar system is more creative than our imaginations.”
“There are always surprises,” she adds.
Before the launch date, she needs to finish designing and building Dragonfly: four sets of rotors, a miniature nuclear generator, a lithium-ion battery, 10 cameras, two sampling drills and four scientific instruments.
Hundreds of scientists and engineers from different institutions are involved in the project.
Chief engineer Ken Hibbard has worked countless nights and weekends for months. He knows he will grow old with the project.
“You invest so much of your time and energy, a little bit of your soul goes into every one of these concepts,” he says.
“It’s more than two of us. It’s hundreds of people that come together and make things happen. And no one wants to let anybody else down.”
He will most likely be in the control room in 2026 for the launch. Zibi Turtle also wants to be there in person, to help out.
“That would be the plan,” she says.