Your Space Journey

Dragonfly – Space Helicopter to explore Saturn’s Moon Titan – Interview with Principal Investigator Elizabeth “Zibi” Turtle

February 01, 2023 Dragonfly Season 4 Episode 1
Your Space Journey
Dragonfly – Space Helicopter to explore Saturn’s Moon Titan – Interview with Principal Investigator Elizabeth “Zibi” Turtle
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Dragonfly, an upcoming mission from the Applied Physics Laboratory, is a pioneering project that aims to explore Saturn's largest moon, Titan. The mission will send a rotorcraft called Dragonfly to Titan's surface to study its geology, atmosphere, and potential habitability. Titan is of particular interest to scientists because it has a thick atmosphere, stable liquids on its surface, and a complex chemistry that is similar to that of early Earth.

👉 Don't forget to subscribe to this channel & press the bell 🔔 for more updates.
👉 Subscribe now:
⌨ Share your opinion by commenting and what let us know interviews you want next.

Dragonfly will be able to fly to different locations on Titan, land and take off again, and conduct in-situ measurements with a suite of scientific instruments. The mission is set to launch in 2027 and will arrive at Titan in 2034. The mission is expected to provide new insights into the origins of life and the potential for life elsewhere in the Solar System.

Elizabeth “Zibi” Turtle, the principal investigator for Dragonfly joins us to discuss this incredible mission.

Zibi was an associate of the imaging team on the Galileo mission and an associate of the imaging and RADAR teams on the Cassini mission. She also serves as a co-investigator working with the camera on board the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. She has co-authored many scholarly articles about planetary impact features, surface processes, and planetary imaging and mapping.

For more information about the Dragonfly mission, visit

👇👇👇 Your Space Journey
🌐 Website:
📧 For business inquiries:
🥰 Instagram:

The Imposter Syndrome Network Podcast
The Imposter Syndrome Network (ISN) is a community of technology professionals who...

Listen on: Apple Podcasts   Spotify

Chuck (host)  0:00  
Imagine a robotic rotorcraft flying over the dunes of an alien moon. Sounds like science fiction, right? Well, it's about to become reality. Find out more in today's episode, three to one full power. Welcome to your space journey, where we venture into the future of space exploration. Your journey begins now. Hello, and welcome to the fourth season of your space journey. Thank you so much for joining me. I'm your host Chuck. And today we're gonna dive into a mission to Saturn called the dragonfly mission. It's actually going to be a space helicopter that's gonna go explore the moon of Saturn's largest moon Titan. Joining me today is the principal investigator of dragonfly. Elizabeth turtle. Dragonfly. An upcoming mission from the Applied Physics Laboratory is a pioneering project that aims to explore Saturn's largest moon Titan. The mission will send a rotorcraft called Dragon Fly to Titan surface to study its geology, atmosphere, and potential habitability. Titan is of particular interest to scientists, because it has a thick atmosphere, stable liquids on its surface, and a complex chemistry that is similar to that of Early Earth. Dragonfly will be able to fly to different locations on Titan land and take off again, and conduct Institute measurements with a suite of scientific instruments. The mission is set to launch in 2027 and will arrive at Titan in 2034. The mission is expected to provide new insights into the origins of life and the potential for life elsewhere in the solar system. Elizabeth Zippy turtle, the principal investigator for dragonfly joins us today to discuss this incredible mission. Zippy was an associate of the imaging team on the gallium mission and an associate of the imaging and radar teams on the Cassini mission. She also serves as CO investigator working with the camera onboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. Your space journey, space journey, thank you so much for joining me today. My pleasure? Well, I'd say we love to talk about people's space journey and you have a fascinating one, I kind of want to go back to the beginning, because you've had an amazing career so far as planetary scientists. But I understand you sort of got some great influences, but if by your dad, your grandmother, even a favorite board game, I was wondering, you just tell us how your fascination with space came about?

Zibi Turtle  2:44  
Your Yeah, I I've just always been interested in space, as you refer to it. I've been a, you know, it was kind of always a part of, of our of our lives, because of my dad and my grandmother's fascination with the sky as well. So, so we were always, always looking at my dad would take us out to look for comments and meteor showers and things like that. And then yeah, my sister and I had a board game called space up that we played all the time where you, you know, you had little missions to different places. And and as you know, in the 70s 80s voyagers moved out through the solar system, the you know, the questions that were in the game, you know, we started to learn what what questions were outdated, what answers were outdated. As, as we learn more as about our solar system.

Chuck (host)  3:35  
Sure, what a great way out I love how to how you had some encouraging people throughout your life and mentors, they make such a huge difference. So again, any of our audience out there, just say those encouraging words to kids to others just encourage them along. You never know what lead to they might be heading up a team that's exploring a moon of Saturn, which is awesome. So Zb, I have to say, you know, many folks like me, I was greatly inspired the first time I looked at Saturn through a telescope. And I could see the moon Titan, of course. But now you know you're leading a team that will investigate Can you just give us kind of that high level, big picture view of what the dragonfly mission is, and its objectives.

Zibi Turtle  4:17  
You know, one of the big questions has been how life developed. But it's hard to go back on Earth to study the, you know, the prebiotic steps the chemical steps that occurred before chemistry took that lead to biology here on Earth. And it can be difficult to study in the lab because of the setup required and the timescales required. So we look to other places in the solar system that can give us pieces to this puzzle. And Titan in many ways, especially chemically, is very like the early Earth. Titan is the largest moon of Saturn. It has an atmosphere it's the only satellite In the solar system that has a dense atmosphere. And in fact, the atmosphere is actually denser than our atmosphere here on Earth, the atmospheric surface pressure on Titan is one and a half times that here, here on Earth. So the atmosphere does a lot of interesting things. It's mostly made of nitrogen, like our atmosphere. But the next major constituent is nothing. And that methane breaks down at the top of the atmosphere. And the remnants, you know, the pieces left behind, recombine and form very complex carbon rich molecules. But Titan being in the outer solar system is an icy satellite. So it surfaces made of water ice, like many of the moons in the outer solar system, it it hosts in its interior, a liquid water ocean, so it's an ocean world. So in the past that Titan surface, there's been the opportunity for the surface to melt. For example, when you have an impact event that you know, melts the target rock, but the target rock on Titan is, you know, water ice. And so when that melts, you get a nice warm pool of water. And in the interior liquid ocean there in the interior ocean is liquid water in the present day, although deep beneath the surface. So Titan has not only these opportunities were there to be liquid water in the system. But it has a lot of very carbon rich material. And of course, there's energy in the form of sunlight that's driving this, this chemistry in Titan's atmosphere. So the molecules that are formed in the atmosphere and fall out onto the surface have had the opportunity to mix with liquid water. So effectively, Titan has been doing the kind of prebiotic chemistry experiments for us that we want to do, you know, here on Earth. And the results of those experiments are sitting on Titan surface today. And so that's what, that's what motivates Dragonfly Dragonfly is a mission to go to Titan to pick up the results of the chemistry experiments that it's done, that it's been doing for us.

Chuck (host)  7:05  
It's a fascinating mission. And I have to say, you've got the coolest job. I was getting the world but this kind of in the universe. Really? Can you tell us more about just your role and responsibilities as principal investigator for dragonfly?

Zibi Turtle  7:18  
Right. So yeah, so I'm the principal investigator for dragonfly that means that I am responsible for the, for the mission, and for achieving the science, that, that we have set out as our science objectives. On a day to day basis, it means I sit in a lot of meetings. But you know, the big picture is, you're absolutely right, this is, you know, I am exceedingly fortunate to get to work on, you know, on on, you know, planetary missions, is absolutely thrilling. And one of the things that is particularly, that I find particularly fun about this role is is being able to see all the different parts of the project and all and how they're all coming together, right, this is a very tightly coupled spacecraft. I mean, all spacecraft are very complicated and, you know, present, you know, constrained or sometimes over constrained problem. dragonflight in particular is a very tightly coupled system. And so, things that you wouldn't necessarily expect to affect, you know, different subsystems. Very much do. And so it's just been, it's, it's always fascinating and so exciting to see how everything develops together. And to be able to, you know, to work with this incredible team that's developing the different the different parts of this that are all coming together now as we get ready for our our mission preliminary design review next

Chuck (host)  8:51  
month. Wow, that's gonna be fascinating to you some of our audience, I was thinking about this, where they might be familiar with ingenuity, the Mars helicopter, but dragonflies a lot different than ingenuity, as Mars is much different than Titan. So this will be the first time that a rotorcraft like dragonfly has flown on a moon in our solar system. Can you tell us more about just dragonfly size and general capabilities?

Zibi Turtle  9:18  
Yeah, absolutely. So Right. So Titan, as I said, the atmosphere of Titan is denser than our atmosphere, the gravity is lower Titan is a smaller body. So the gravity is lower. So it's actually physically easier to fly on Titan than it is to fly. Here on Earth, a person you know could put could put wings on and kind of soar over the surface of Titan, which be which would be thrilling. So Titan in that respect, does a lot of the work for us Dragonfly is designed as an octocopter, a rotorcraft lander, so that we can fly from place to place on Titan instead of driving from place to place. I As the we actually spend most of our time on the surface making scientific measurements and communicating with earth so we don't spend we spend listen, I'm sitting on the ground, and then we use flight to be able to travel from place to place. But to kind of speak to the some of the differences with you know, with the exploration of Mars in the spectacular ingenuity helicopter. This gives you a sense of the the different environments. The, because Mars, of course, has a much thinner atmosphere, the dragonfly lander is about the size of the perseverance rover. So rather than, you know, the smaller helicopter for flight on Mars, we are actually flying a very large vehicle from place to place. And as I said, that's because Titan's environment is so is so you know, conducive to, to flight. So

Chuck (host)  10:57  
this amazing and one thing, though, kind of a disadvantage, or something definitely different about the Ballantine's environment is it's hazy atmosphere. So you're unable to use solar power. But understand you're going to use an RTG power source as it were, if you could just generally explain how does how does that work?

Zibi Turtle  11:13  
Yeah, so the, the elimination of the surface of Titan is kind of like the full moon here, because we're much further out in the solar system. And as you say, there's there's haze in the atmosphere, which is actually the those very carbon rich molecules that are produced at the top of the atmosphere falling through the atmosphere, and they produce these these haze layers. So that when you see Titan from the, you know, with the with the visible wavelengths, you know, human visible wavelengths, you you see this, this gorgeous, you know, atmosphere, and the surface isn't apparent. So yeah, so there's less illumination at the at the surface, and of course, dragonfly, by the, you know, because we're flying from place to place, we need to keep the lander compact. And so very large solar arrays are not, you know, aren't aren't a feasible means of powering the mission. So just like the curiosity and perseverance rovers, we use a MultiMission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator or NMRT, G, which uses the which powers the lander, the other benefit of the NMRT G is there's a lot of it's a fairly inefficient process generating, generating power generating power that way. So there's a lot of what we typically call waste heat, there's extra heat produced in process. However, for Titan, where the surface temperature is 94 Kelvin, which is like negative 290 Fahrenheit. The waste heat is not wasted at all. And it's what we use to keep the interior of the lander warm. So the electronics and all of the, you know, all the hardware inside the lander can be kept at, you know, appropriate temperatures to function. And so, yeah, so we get to benefits from the MMR TG.

Chuck (host)  13:04  
That's so impressive. It's gonna be fascinating now, if I understand your your launch and landing timeline launch, I think is 2027 with the rival 2034. And is that is that true? And like how long would the dragonfly mission is expected to last I guess,

Zibi Turtle  13:23  
we're scheduled to launch in June of 2027. And that gets us to Titan by 2034. It's a long way to the outer solar system. The mission itself is a little over three years. So the plan is to explore Titan equatorial part of Titan's equatorial region. There are just give a sense of how familiar how earth like Titan is the equatorial region on Titan is actually covered in dunes in sand dunes. But on Titan, the sand dunes and may the sand itself is made of organic and has an organic composition. And so the plan is to explore the area of the sand dunes the measure the compositions of the sand of the introduce the you know clean areas between the sand dunes where you have a water ice, bedrock, and then to explore up into deposits associated with an impact crater that self impact crater which is 80 kilometers in diameter, and is one of the places on the surface where liquid water and complex carbon rich material may have had an opportunity to mix for possibly extended periods of time. And so we want to measure the compositions of the materials in these different environments to understand what kind of chemistry has been possible on Titan and how far it's progressed.

Chuck (host)  14:49  
Wow. And speaking of how far I mean one thing that I thought was really amazing about Dragonfly is we're talking a lot more than just the tiny hops that ingenuity which is great But mom saying it can go 10s of miles in under an hour. How far can it fly during Titans say daytime hours

Zibi Turtle  15:09  
taking days are 16 Earth days long. So about two weeks, right? So the plan is to fly every other titan day. That gives us extra time to make measurements, you know, at each landing site, etc. And it gives us a you know, backup, if, for some reason we, you know, don't fly on a on a certain day. So the plan is to play about once a month. And in that those flights are probably about half an hour long. And we go several, as you say, we go several kilometers in, in a single flight and over the timescale of the mission. Depending on where we land in the landing, it lets you know we'll go several 10s Or maybe more than 100 kilometers from our original landing site into the deposits associated with the crater. One of the things though, that we don't have because Mars has this infrastructure, right, there are a lot of orbiting spacecraft that can serve as relays for data from the surface of Mars. And that, you know, in the case of MRO with the high rise camera are taking very high resolution images of the surface. But we, for Titan, we don't have that the Cassini spacecraft that orbited Saturn sent back spectacular observations. We knew the geography of Titan, we know it's general geology, but we don't have that high resolution that kind of, you know, meter scale imaging or sub meter scale imaging of the surface that we're used to for, you know, for Mars. So dragonflies fine, because we can fly, we can actually scout out our future landing sites in advance. And that allows us to, you know, assess from a hazard perspective want to make sure the landing sites are safe. But it also allows us to assess from a scientific perspective, the, you know, the scientific interest of different potential in sites. So that's one of the one of the things that we'll be doing differently, is doing our own scouting. And we do directors communication from the surface of Titan, because we don't have an orbiting relay so, so that you know, everything is is self contained, including our communication system.

Chuck (host)  17:18  
That is incredible. If you can ask you this, what excites you personally the most about this mission?

Zibi Turtle  17:26  
Well, having worked on the Cassini mission, having seen the images come back from the Huygens probe that descended down through Titan's atmosphere. In 2005, just a, like a, I think the anniversary of that descent was last week, actually. Anyway, having, you know, having, you know, gotten to know Titan, so well to that mission, the, you know, the excitement of going back, it's just thrilling to be to be looking forward to going back to this, you know, this really fascinating. The other thing, another thing that really excites me about the mission is that although we're a chemistry Nishan and you know, designed to make very detailed measurements of the chemistry of the surface, we can put that into the context of the Titan environment. And we have other instruments that give us the capability to measure different aspects of that environment, the you know, monitoring the meteorology, listening for tightening earthquakes, and, you know, cameras that will give us the, you know, the view of the surface to understand the geologic processes going on and possibly even see, you know, some of that transport in real time is, you know, if the breeze is blowing the sand across the surface, etc. So, I like that, you know, that, that we can kind of get the big picture and put the detailed chemistry into those observations that will give us the bigger picture of of this area of Titan and how it fits into tighten as a system.

Chuck (host)  18:56  
See, I love your enthusiasm. I think it comes across good. And I think it's actually very motivational for a lot of our audience out there. And we do have some sometimes parents kids have listened to program before just wondering just as successful principal investigator, what advice would you give to kids out there who want to pursue a career in space exploration?

Zibi Turtle  19:19  
One can look at people's careers that people see these resumes, right, and connect dots and say, well, here's a natural progression, but what you don't see in those resumes is all the proposals that weren't necessarily successful. And you still learn things from them, right? That's, you know, taking the learning away from, you know, from the things that don't work from the proposals that aren't selected, etc. And I certainly had those as well. You know, gives you the next you know, the information for the next step and kind of building off of, of, you know, experience whether or not you know, it leads to success to you know, try the next thing that kind of have perseverance is, is isn't is important and something I've tried to try to do is is just, it's fine the you know what I can learn from from each step. The other thing that I that I'd say is that while we look at planetary missions or spacecraft missions in general and we think about the technology we think about the engineering we think about the science the teams that work on these missions are multidisciplinary, right? It's not just scientists and engineers there's a you know an entire you no branch of the project that is the Project Management right it is it's the people that that actually make everything happen and get the you know, get the make sure that the resources are distributed so the scientists and the engineers you know, can each do their their pieces of the mission but also the graphic designers right who do the you know, who take the the CAD model and and do or you know, do renders, so you can see what you know what dragonfly will look like in the Titan environment, right, there's a lot of that side of dragonfly as well the augmented reality, the virtual reality that we will rely on as we're exploring Titan to kind of put ourselves into dragonflies please on on Titan as we do the exploration, and of course, people doing computer programming, as well, right, which Dragon flight we didn't talk about it. But dragonflies flights, for example, have to be entirely autonomous. So, right, all of that computer programming is absolutely essential. And so the like, while we think about, you know, some of the technical roles more specifically for these missions, the team that is, you know, that is developing dragonfly, which is hundreds of people includes people with all sorts of different backgrounds. And so, you know, even if you're not going into engineering, but you're interested in space, right, you know, there are a lot of different a lot of different avenues to to participate. And all of these roles are absolutely crucial to see the mission.

Chuck (host)  22:07  
That's fantastic, wonderful advice. And just wonderful, big picture of how it takes so many people from so many different disciplines to come together. As me I just want to thank you so much for taking time to join me wanted to wish you and your awesome team. The best for dragonfly, we're certainly going to keep an eye a close eye on this mission. Thank you so much.

Zibi Turtle  22:27  
Thank you. It's pleasure to talk with you.

Chuck (host)  22:30  
Your space derny why really join my conversation with Elizabeth today and I'm so excited about the dragonfly mission. I hope you're too if you'd like to learn more, just go to the website. I put it in the description. It's also Dragon Fly dot j Hu APL dot E D U. I want to thank Zippy for joining me today. I want to thank you for joining me as well. Again, we'd appreciate it if you do a small favor and share this episode with a friend. Thanks so much for joining me. I'll see you next time. God bless

Transcribed by

Introduction to the Dragonfly mission
How Zibi’s fascination with space came about
Why Titan?
Zibi's role and responsibilities as Principal Investigator for Dragonfly
Dragonfly’s size and capabilities
(Cont.) Dragonfly’s size and capabilities
Dragonfly’s launch and landing timeline
Plan for Titan’s landing
What excites Zibi the most about this mission