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Penn State has major role in Saturn moon mission: ‘This is straight out of Star Trek’

You may have heard about NASA’s upcoming mission to Titan, the earth-like moon near Saturn. But you may not have heard that Pennsylvania State University researchers have a major role.The team of three aerospace engineers are helping to design the drone-like vehicle that visit Titan.

Artist rendering of Dragonfly vehicle as it comes into Titan's atmosphere and lands.
Artist rendering of Dragonfly vehicle as it comes into Titan's atmosphere and lands.Read moreJohns Hopkins University

You may have heard about NASA’s plan to send a drone-style vehicle to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. But you may not have heard that Pennsylvania State University researchers have a major role in the mission.

Three Penn State aerospace engineers are helping design Dragonfly, a “dual quadcopter” that will make the eight-year trek to the orange-colored moon, then spend two-and-a-half years flying and landing and gathering data about the icy body.

“This is straight out of Star Trek,” said Jose Palacios, 39, a Penn State associate professor on the project.

The mission, part of NASA’s New Frontiers program, could provide clues about how life came to form in the solar system, given Titan’s status as the only other body with standing liquid on its surface and the only moon known to have a dense atmosphere.

The Penn State trio, along with a cadre of graduate and undergraduate students, will help ensure the vehicle can safely enter Titan’s atmosphere, then take off and land repeatedly on the moon’s surface. The battery-powered vehicle, about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, also will have to navigate the dune-filled terrain without the benefit of a GPS. It will need to gather and transmit data and photos — yes, people back on earth will be able to watch — and work in extremely cold temperatures, below -190 Celsius.

Science aside, it’s downright heady.

“I never thought I’d be involved in a billion-dollar proposal to send a vehicle to a moon," said Sven Schmitz, 43, an associate professor. "Kind of the dream of every aerospace engineer.”

The Penn State researchers are part of a team headed by Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory. The aerospace engineers are connected to Penn State engineering’s Vertical Lift Research Center of Excellence, among three of its kind in the United States.

“We reached out to Penn State early in the process, and they had some great ideas,” said Elizabeth Turtle, a Johns Hopkins research scientist and the project’s principal investigator. “And it’s been a great partnership.”

The project proposal competition was more than two years in the making. NASA last month announced the team had won.

“The very best part of it is that we have students who are going to be involved in this project who are going to realize they are helping to do something that is cutting-edge science and engineering,” said Penn State president Eric Barron. “That’s just plain exciting.”

Larger than Mercury and smaller than Mars, Titan bears similarities to early Earth with its dunes and mountains, thick atmosphere, and liquid processes (its seas and lakes, however, are filled with methane rather than water).

“So we have on Titan an opportunity to observe the processes that were present on early Earth when life began to form and possibly even conditions that may be able to harbor life today,” Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said in a video about the mission.

Over the next few years, the Penn State researchers will be trying to overcome a variety of challenges. First, the engineers have to make sure the vehicle’s parts are ready to work after the lengthy journey through space.

“Everything has to work, even though it’s been sitting all locked up for eight years," said Jack W. Langelaan, 48, an associate professor and lead Penn State researcher on the project. “That’s a difficult engineering thing to solve. NASA engineers can do this because they’ve done things like this before.”

They’ll also be looking at how far the vehicle can travel on each battery charge and ensuring that antennas placed on it to gather data don’t hinder its aerodynamic ability.

The dual quadcopter also will have to fly and navigate on its own because of the huge signal delay. It will take more than two hours for a signal to reach the vehicle on Titan and come back to earth. The vehicle, Langelaan said, will rely on “optical navigation,” taking pictures of terrain as it flies and recognizing the location when those objects appear again.

And they’ll have to be sure that the equipment will work in that extreme cold; they’ve already conducted simulations at -160 degrees Celsius, Schmitz said.

“We have to come up with a sophisticated blade design that can operate under very diverse flight conditions,” Schmitz said, “from the initial maneuver, when it comes down on a parachute and has to dive into a stable trajectory. Then it has to be able to take off and hover efficiently, in order to survey the area, and it has to be able to climb at a certain rate, and land safely again."

Schmitz said they also are looking at the impact on performance if the blades are damaged.

“There are things you can do in design to mitigate that,” he said.

On the plus side, the moon has one-seventh the gravity of Earth. That, coupled with the dense atmosphere, will aid flying. In fact, all a person would need is a pair of wings cut out of cardboard, the ability to flap, and the imagination of an 8-year-old, Langelaan said.

“If you did that on Titan, you could fly,” he said.

The launch is scheduled for 2026, and Dragonfly is expected to arrive at Titan in 2034. Langelaan will be in his 60s then and said he expects to be involved.

When the mission is over, Dragonfly will remain on Titan, just like Neil Armstrong’s footprints on the moon, Langelaan said.

“So we’re now working on something that has longevity like the pyramids basically,” he added. “I think I feel similar to the way the designers of the pyramids would have felt."