SPACING OUT: Most interesting moon gets mission

This combination of images from the Huygens lander shows riverbeds where liquid methane is thought to have flown recently.

Solar system science has entered an era where the planets aren’t the most interesting celestial bodies to explore.

Sure, there’s lots more to discover about the outer planets themselves — and the inner ones, too. But there are three objects that NASA should focus its exploratory efforts around. Those would be the Jovian moon Europa, as well as Saturn’s Enceladus and Titan.

For many years, astronomers surely wondered what lurked beneath the smoggy yellow clouds of Titan, the largest moon of the ringed planet Saturn. Titan, along with Jupiter’s largest moon Ganymede, is larger than the planet Mercury. So these are basically worlds all on their own which happen to be orbiting around gigantic planets.

At the height of NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn, in 2005, a probe called Huygens landed on the moon’s golden surface. During its descent, the probe appeared to take photos of mountains and a variety of geological formations that would suggest an active surface. Additionally, Cassini from orbit was able to detect multiple bodies of liquid. Mind you, these aren’t bodies of water. On Earth, water can exist at the triple point, meaning it exists as a liquid, solid and gas. On Titan, where it’s much, much colder, methane exists as a liquid, solid and gas. And at a couple hundred degrees below zero, water on Titan is as hard as a rock.

So we know all this about the largest Saturn moon. But within the next couple of decades, we will get an even closer look at this mysterious place in the solar system.

NASA announced last week its Dragonfly Mission, which will deploy what the agency calls a rotorcraft down onto the moon’s surface and fly around to numerous interesting objects and areas — 108 miles in all. The mission will launch in 2026, with arrival in 2034. Conditions in the lower atmosphere and near the surface are thought to be excellent for gliders or rotorcraft, and Dragonfly will spend nearly 3 years taking advantage of that.

Interestingly, NASA also says in its news release that Dragonfly’s instruments “will search for chemical evidence of past or extant life.” Meaning life actually could exist in Titan in a form that up until this point we have been unable to comprehend.

So, yes, our first encounter with extraterrestrial life could be in the form of some sort of Titanian methane bog monster. OK, so maybe not the “bog monster” part. Either way, all sorts of mysteries await us on Titan’s surface.