NASA Dragonfly drone tests are currently underway. The nuclear-powered vehicle, about the size of a car, will seek potential precursors to life on Titan, Saturn‘s moon. But before Dragonfly can take flight, NASA must ensure it can withstand the unique environment of this moon.
The primary goal of Dragonfly is to study the complex chemistry of Titan, which could provide insights into the origins of life in our Solar System. Equipped with cameras, sensors, and samplers, this vehicle will explore areas of Titan known to contain organic materials, particularly regions where these materials may have encountered liquid water beneath the moon’s icy surface.
Types of tests
The lander will traverse Titan’s nitrogen-rich atmosphere using four coaxial rotors. To ensure these rotors can function in such conditions, the Dragonfly team conducted numerous tests at NASA’s Langley Research Center. “All these tests feed into our Dragonfly Titan simulations and performance predictions” said Ken Hibbard, Dragonfly mission systems engineer in a statement (ref.).
Four tests campaigns have been conducted on the NASA Dragonfly drone. The first two in a 4 x 7-meter subsonic tunnel and the other two in a 5-meter transonic dynamic tunnel (TDT). The subsonic tunnel is used to validate the fluid dynamic models developed by design scientists. While the TDT is used to validate computer models under simulated atmospheric conditions that Dragonfly will likely encounter on Titan.
The most recent test, which took place in June, involved a scaled-down Dragonfly model. “With hundreds of test runs, we have tested the expected flight conditions. With variations in wind speed, rotor speed, and flight angles to evaluate the vehicle’s aerodynamic performance,” said Bernadine Juliano, test manager. “We completed over 700 total runs, encompassing over 4,000 individual data points. All objectives were successfully achieved. The data will help build confidence in our simulation models before extrapolating them to Titan’s conditions.”
Complexity of the mission
Analyzing this wealth of data involves a significant collaborative effort, from specialists at the University of Central Florida to NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. Rick Heisler, who oversaw the TDT test campaigns, emphasized the immense value of simulations in understanding Dragonfly’s rotor performance in Titan’s unique atmosphere.
“The heavy gas environment in the TDT has a density three and a half times that of air while operating at ambient pressure and temperature at sea level” Heisler said. “This allows the rotors to operate under conditions close to those on Titan and better replicate the lift and dynamic load the real lander will experience”.
As the pieces of the mission come together, the enormity of the task and the historic nature of the mission become increasingly apparent to the team. “With Dragonfly, we are turning science fiction into exploratory reality” said Hibbard. “The mission is coming together piece by piece, and we are excited for every next step toward sending this groundbreaking aircraft into the skies and onto the surface of Titan”.