WASHINGTON-On the face of it, NASA’s newest probe sounds incredible. Known as Dragonfly, it is a dual-rotor quadcopter (technically an octocopter, even more technically an X8 octocopter); it’s roughly the size of a compact car; it’s completely autonomous; it’s nuclear powered; and it will hover above the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan.
But Elizabeth Turtle, the mission’s principle investigator at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, insists that this is actually a pretty tame space probe, as these things go.
“There’s not a lot of new technology,” she says.
Quadcopters (even X8 octocopters) are for sale on Amazon these days. Self-driving technology is coming along quickly. Nuclear power is harder to come by, but the team plans to use the same kind of system that runs NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars. Everything that’s going into Dragonfly is already being used somewhere else.
“Almost everyone who gets exposed to Dragonfly has a similar thought process. The first time you see it, you think: ‘You gotta be kidding, that’s crazy,’ “ says Doug Adams, the mission’s spacecraft systems engineer.