Broadcast 3406 Dr. Melissa Trainer

The Space Foundation Conference

04 Nov 2019 Dr. Melissa Trainer
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Guest:  Dr. Melissa Trainer;  Topic:  A comprehensive look at the planned NASA Dragonfly Mission to Titan to look for signs of life and more.

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We welcomed Dr. Melissa Trainer to the program for a one segment 62 minute discussion about the NASA Dragonfly mission planned for Titan, the largest moon of Saturn.  This was a detailed discussion about the mission, its planning, hardware, components and timelines.  You might think that with the launch date and arrival on Titan date fairly far off in the future, that there would be lots of time to work on the mission, plan, development and testing of the hardware, plus time to make changes in the mission.  Well, think again.  Listen to what our guest said about timelines, making changes, the need to do mission trades, and the work they need to do to be ready for the launch, then what they do once the payload is on the way to the destination.  We also talked about the travel time, what it would take to get to Titan faster, the added cost, plus Earth-Titan annual launch windows.    

Our guest described the mission and the instrument package.  We then broke down the package and talked about many of the individual instruments.  even the possibility of changing them during the time before launch.  A good portion of our discussion was focused n the type of "rover" being used, a vertical takeoff drone which will work well on Titan due to the very thick atmosphere which enables it to hop or fly from surface location to surface location. Dr. Trainer explained this process in detail, plus she told us how it was programmed and how the landing sites were selected.  She was asked abut site to site contamination and how that was to be avoided so each site provided unspoiled samples.  

Listener Terry asked if the payload would be sterilized for planetary protection.  Our guest had much to say on this issue including the mission assessment of planetary risk for various segments of the mission.  In talking about it, she explained the planetary risk assessment scale and the way in which the contamination issues were examined within their risk profile programs.  Let us know what you think about this by posting on our blog.  Dragonfly had around a 2+ rating which was not very high.  Don't miss what she said about this and planetary protection/contamination issues in general.  

Later in our discussion, I asked Dr. Trainer what both NASA and she expected t find on Titan.  Melissa talked about mission goals, looking for building blocks of life, plus we talked about the capability to detect let alone understand life we may not even recognize as life.  Don't miss this part of our discussion.  Another listener wanted to know if O2 was in the Titan atmosphere and if that would indicate life.  Again, note what our guest said in response to Carol's question. 

We moved on to talk about the planned launch date, launch windows for Earth to Titan and the long voyage out to Titan taking more than  nine years.  I inquired about getting a faster ride and I asked if she thought she would still be there on the project all those years from now until landing in 2034.  In addition, I wanted to know what the team members do on the project during all this time.  You might be very surprised by what she had to say on these subjects so listen up, ok?  At one point, I inquired as to when the mission was fixed and no more changes or trades could be made.  Had we already reached that point?  You need to listen to our guest to hear the answers to these questions.

The cost of Dragonfly came up.  As we learned it was a cost cap mission at about $850 million. She explained that process, more about the timeline, and how they had to live with that cost cap.  Before we came to an end of the discussion, Melissa was asked about international partners supporting Dragonfly.  She said yes and pointed to the work being supplied by JAXA in particular.  Finally, we learned there was about an 80 minute travel time for one pixel to make it to Earth.  Make sure you listen to the closing comments and note the team excitement with Dragonfly. 

Please post your comments/questions for Dr. Trainer on TSS blog for this program.  You can reach our guest through me, her NASA website or the many Dragonfly websites.

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Dragonfly project information and updates

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