NASA’s Dragonfly rotorcraft-lander approaching a site on Saturn’s exotic moon, Titan, captured in this artistic rendering.

A target touchdown spot on Titan – a moon of Saturn. New research is helping to converge on a smooth landing location for NASA’s 990-pound Dragonfly rotorcraft in 2034.

“Dragonfly will land in an equatorial, dry region of Titan – a frigid, thick-atmosphere, hydrocarbon world,” said Cornell’s Léa Bonnefoy.

“It rains liquid methane sometimes, but it is more like a desert on Earth – where you have dunes, some little mountains and an impact crater. We’re looking closely at the landing site, its structure and surface. To do that, we’re examining radar images from the Cassini-Huygens mission, looking at how radar signal changes from different viewing angles,” Bonnefoy said in a Cornell University press statement.

Natural color view of Titan and Saturn from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The Selk crater region is the mission’s target for touchdown of the craft.

Radar reflectivity

Bonnefoy and her colleagues have characterized the equatorial, hummocky, knoll-like landscape on Titan by combining and analyzing all of the radar images of the area acquired by the Cassini spacecraft during its historic 13 year exploration of the Saturn system. They used radar reflectivity and angled shadows to determine the properties of the surface.

In point of fact, it’s a terrain composed of sand dunes and broken-up icy ground.

The radar work of the Selk crater region, where the Dragonfly mission is expected to land, has been mapped into six units, and the dunes and interdune regions were separated within dune fields.

Radar reflection assists in surveying landing site on Titan;
Credit: Léa Bonnefoy, et al.

Solid foundation

The new research, “Composition, Roughness, and Topography from Radar Backscatter at Selk Crater, the Dragonfly Landing Site,” was published in a recent edition of the Planetary Science Journal.

“Over the next several years, we are going to see a lot of attention paid to the Selk crater region,” said Cornell’s Alex Hayes, associate professor of astronomy in the College of Arts and Sciences. “Lea’s work provides a solid foundation upon which to start building models and making predictions for Dragonfly to test when it explores the area in the mid-2030s.”

NASA’s Dragonfly mission is scheduled to launch in 2027 and arrive at Titan in 2034 for a three-year mission.

To read the full research paper — “Composition, Roughness, and Topography from Radar Backscatter at Selk Crater, the Dragonfly Landing Site” – go to:

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