Photo credit: NASA

NASA has decided to delay the titan mission launch by a year thanks to Covid-19. The decision to delay the launch of the mission to Saturn’s moon Titan by a year, was due to budget issues caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

NASA made a statement on Sept. 25 that the Dragonfly mission, which was slated to launch in 2026, will launch in 2027 instead. However, the change in launch date have no effect on the design of the mission or the science it will execute.

NASA designated Dragonfly in June 2019 to be the next mission in its New Frontiers project of medium-sized planetary science missions.
Dragonfly will reach Titan, Saturn’s largest moon with a dense atmosphere, and utilize a set of rotors, like a drone, to fly from one direction to another across its surface.

NASA revealed via the statement that the decision to push back the launch a year “is based on factors external to the Dragonfly project team, including COVID-19’s impact on the Planetary Science Division’s budget.”

The agency did not mention what that delay would do to spending for the mission in fiscal year 2021, for which NASA initially petitioned $95.8 million, or the general mission cost, which is capped under the New Frontiers project at $850 million, not including launch and operations.

“NASA has the utmost confidence in the Dragonfly team to deliver a successful mission that conducts compelling science,” Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said in that statement.

NASA officials had instructed that measures to deal with the impacts of the pandemic would have costs to its science projects that would need to be adapted somehow by the agency. NASA will permit scientists to apply for augmentations for existing awards, with an emphasis to help students and early-career professionals. There are also costs for missions that had to just work due to the pandemic.

There was no indication, though, that Dragonfly was at risk of a delay due to those issues. During a Sept. 2 conference of the Outer Planets Assessment Group, Elizabeth “Zibi” Turtle, principal investigator for the mission at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, announced that early design and testing work on the mission proceeded regardless of a transition to largely virtual work due to the pandemic.

“We’re on track and making good progress despite the limitations in the work environment right now,” she said. Design work and mission planning activities continued online while some testing, with COVID-19 safety protocols in place, continued in labs. But, she reported, “we’re tracking the impacts due to COVID on aspects of the schedule.”

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