Scheduled to launch in 2027, Dragonfly will be the first spacecraft to fly on Saturn’s moon, Titan. Data from Cassini-Huygens revealed evidence of a subsurface ocean, made of water and ammonia, as well as stable bodies of liquid hydrocarbons on the surface. This makes Titan the only other body in our solar system with a stable liquid source on its surface. These features make it an incredibly valuable place to study in humanity’s search for life beyond Earth.
As Dragonfly is also a rotorcraft and must operate autonomously on Titan, there are many interesting engineering challenges that come with this mission as aerodynamics and flight controls are thrown into the mix, along with everything else we must account for in a spacecraft.
In this episode, I chat with Dr. Jack Lagelaan, who is part of a team of engineers from Penn State University leading the design of Dragonfly’s aerodynamics, flight controls, and aeromechanics. Dr. Langelaan is an Assistant Professor at Penn State, whose research focuses on flight planning and control algorithms for autonomous systems.
0:00 – Episode Intro
5:52 – Dr. Langelaan’s background in aerospace
13:59 – How the collaboration with APL on Dragonfly came about
15:55- Penn State’s research on Dragonfly
18:51 – Pre flight checks for autonomous, safe flight on Titan
31:29 – aeromechanical challenges for flight on Titan (handling velocity differences in advancing/retreating side, vibration effects due to high velocity, system design considerations for the rotorcraft due to rotor vibration)
40:28 – interesting aerodynamic interactions / effects during flight on Titan
45:58 – Designing Dragonfly to be aerodynamic (optimization studies, accounting for flight performance and systems engineering)
49:30 – Collaborating on the body design with APL, how the current structure came about
51:56 – Testing plans & simulations to prepare for flight on Titan (testing in environmental conditions & with scale models to validate controls)
57:56 – Favorite memory working on Dragonfly
1:01:34 – Episode Outro
Links for more information on Dragonfly
Dragonfly is led by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (APL), and collaborated on by engineers, scientists, and managers from a variety of institutions. For more information on the mission, see the links below.
Energetics of rotary-wing exploration of Titan
GNC for Exploration of Titan with the Dragonfly Rotorcraft Lander