Tricorder Tech: Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer (DraMS) will study complex chemistry on Titan

Tricorder Tech: Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer (DraMS) will study complex chemistry on Titan

Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer (DraMS)

A new NASA mission to Saturn’s moon Titan is scheduled to launch in 2027. When she arrives in the mid-2030s, she will embark on a journey of discovery that could lead to a new understanding of the evolution of life in the Universe.

This mission, named Dragonfly, will carry an instrument called the Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer (DraMS), designed to help scientists refine the chemistry working on Titan. It may also shed light on the types of chemical steps that took place on Earth that ultimately led to the emergence of life, called prebiotic chemistry.

Titan’s rich complex carbon-rich chemistry, oceanic interior, and past presence of liquid water on the surface make it an ideal target to study prebiotic chemical processes and the potential habitability of an extraterrestrial environment.

Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer (DraMS) – NASA

DraMS will allow scientists on Earth to remotely study the chemical composition of Titan’s surface. “We want to know if the kind of chemistry that might be important for early prebiochemical systems on Earth is happening on Titan,” explains Dr. Melissa, trainer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland.

Trainer is a planetary scientist and astrobiologist specializing in Titan and is one of the principal deputy investigators on the Dragonfly mission. She also directs the DraMS instrument, which will search measurements of samples of Titan’s surface material for evidence of prebiotic chemistry.

To achieve this, the Dragonfly helicopter will use Titan’s low gravity and dense atmosphere to fly between various points of interest on Titan’s surface that are several miles apart. This allows Dragonfly to relocate its entire suite of instruments to a new site once the previous one has been fully explored and provides access to samples in environments with a variety of geological histories.

At each site, samples less than a gram in size will be drilled from the surface by the Drill for Acquisition of Complex Organics (DrACO) and brought into the main body of the lander, to a location called the “attic” that houses the DraMS instrument. There they are irradiated by an onboard laser or vaporized in an oven to be measured by DraMS. A mass spectrometer is an instrument that analyzes the various chemical components of a sample by breaking these components down into their basic molecules and passing them through sensors for identification.

“DraMS was designed to study the organic molecules that may be present on Titan, their composition and distribution in different surface environments,” says Trainer. Organic molecules contain carbon and are used by all known forms of life. They are of interest for understanding the origin of life because they can arise from animate and inanimate processes.

Mass spectrometers determine what is in a sample by ionizing the material (ie bombarding it with energy so that the atoms it contains become positively or negatively charged) and examining the chemical composition of the various compounds. This determines the relationship between the weight of the molecule and its charge, which serves as a signature for the compound.

DraMS was developed in part by the same team at Goddard that developed the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite aboard the Curiosity rover. DraMS was developed to study samples of titanium surface material in situ using techniques tested on Mars with the SAM suite.

DraMS LDMS prototype setup at GSFC (top left) with enlarged cross section of LDMS relevant region mimicking important aspects of flight design (right). The prototype of the DrACO LDMS sample cup used in the tests described here is shown (below left) along with the mesh window through which the UV laser (typically 5 pulses of 20 μJ pulse energy) interrogates the sample. — NASA

The coach stressed the benefits of this legacy. Rather than “reinventing the wheel” in the search for organic compounds on Titan, Dragonfly scientists built on established methods used on Mars and elsewhere. “This design has given us a very flexible instrument that can adapt to the different types of surface samples,” says Trainer.

MS/MS fragmentation pattern of the diagnostic fragment peak of chlorophyll a at m/z = 614 Da obtained on the DraMS breadboard system using 2.9% CH4 in N2 gas mixture (above) and the commercial Thermo MALDI LTQ XL System using helium as the collision gas (bottom). NASA

DraMS and other science instruments on Dragonfly are designed and built under the direction of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, which manages the mission for NASA and designs and builds the rotorcraft lander. The team includes key partners at Goddard, the French Space Agency (CNES, Paris, France) providing the gas chromatograph module for DraMS, which provides additional post-furnace separation, Lockheed Martin Space, Littleton, Colorado, NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Federal Airfield in California’s Silicon Valley, NASA Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, Penn State University, State College, Pennsylvania, Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, California, Honeybee Robotics, Brooklyn, New York, the German Aerospace Center (DLR), Cologne, Germany, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Tokyo, Japan.

Dragonfly is the fourth mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program. New Frontiers is managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate Washington.

Further references

Laser desorption mass spectrometry on Saturn’s moon Titan, International Journal of Mass Spectrometry (open access)

Dragonfly mass spectrometer survey on Titan. COSPAR 2022 Abstract (free access)

Development of the Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer (DraMS) for Titan, LPSC 2021 Abstract (open access)

Selection and analytical services of the Dragonfly mass spectrometer gas chromatographic columns in support of the search for organic molecules of astrobiological interest on Titan, Astrobiology (paywall)



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