Dragonfly Student & Early Career Investigator Program

  • Have you dreamed of flying on another world?
  • Have you imagined a desert world where the sand dunes are made of the building blocks of life, and it rains methane?
  • Are you prepared to be a part of a journey to the most Earth-like and yet alien world in the solar system?

This world is Saturn's moon Titan, and Dragonfly, the mission headed to it, seeks Student & Early Career Investigators.

Titan is the only moon in our solar system with a dense atmosphere, which supports an Earth-like hydrological cycle of methane clouds, rain, lakes and seas. Complex organic surface materials preserve, in a deep freeze, the types of organic chemicals that were present on Earth before life developed. Titan's icy crust floats atop an interior liquid water ocean. Dragonfly is a rotorcraft lander (an octocopter) that will explore a variety of locations on Titan. Launching in 2026 and reaching Titan in 2034, Dragonfly will journey farther than any robotic lander has ever traveled. With one hop every other Titan day (16 Earth days), the rotorcraft will travel from its initial landing site to cover areas several dozen kilometers away during the planned ~3-year mission.

Student Investigators will work with Dragonfly mission team members to conduct Titan research, help formulate Dragonfly mission science and operations plans, or assist in the development of instrumentation, hardware, or testing. A cohort of up to three (3) qualified graduate students from U.S. colleges and universities will be selected annually for two-year terms to work with the Dragonfly team. Students will dedicate 30% of their time (concentrated during academic breaks) at APL and/or their Dragonfly mentor's home institution and will receive annual funding for travel to Dragonfly team meetings and to publish and present results at a scientific conference. Faculty mentors at each students' home institutions will be granted travel support to attend the annual Dragonfly Student & Early Career Investigator Program kickoff meeting. A partial list of available research projects can be found at right.


An intent of this program is to broaden mission participation, thus the program targets students who are currently unaffiliated with the Dragonfly team (i.e., students who are not currently being mentored or advised by a Dragonfly team member).

  • Eligible students must be pursuing a master's or doctoral degree in the physical sciences, computer sciences, or engineering at a U.S. institution
  • Demonstrated ability to conduct independent research or development
  • Excellent organizational and communication skills (written and oral)
  • In addition to identifying a mentor on the Dragonfly team, applicants must identify a faculty member at their home institution who can serve as a faculty mentor for the 2-year duration of their participation in the program
Application deadline: July 29, 2020

Questions? Email DragonflySEOContact@jhuapl.edu

Program Frequently Asked Questions (pdf)


Additional projects coming soon.

Mentor: Dr. Jorge Núñez, JHU/APL

Background: Dragonfly will fly two microscopic imagers as part of the Dragonfly Camera Suite (DragonCam), which will image the sampling sites at the foot of the lander over multiple wavelengths. To accomplish this, the DragonCam microscopic imagers will include multispectral LED arrays that will illuminate the sampling sites in the UV through the near-infrared. This will allow for the characterization of different materials on Titan's surface based on their unique spectral signatures, and will aid in the interpretation of results from the DragMS and DragoNS instruments.

Description: This project focuses on the development of the DragonCam multispectral LED arrays. The student will work closely with scientists and engineers to design, build, and test hardware for the Dragonfly mission.

Depending on the student's interest and experience, project duties may include:

  1. Assisting with the preliminary and advanced design, modeling and analysis of the DragonCam LED arrays;
  2. Contributing to the building of testing hardware as well as prototype and flight components;
  3. Developing operating software to control the LED arrays;
  4. Characterization and testing of components in the laboratory, and/or
  5. Performance testing with geologic samples under Titan environmental conditions.

Outcome: This project will contribute to the development of the DragonCam microscopic imager multispectral LED arrays for the Dragonfly mission. In addition, results from tasks 4 and 5 would aid in the interpretation of DragonCam results and could be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Required skills: This project requires a background in physical sciences or engineering, and the ability to work both independently and in a team environment. Experience using computer aided design (CAD) software (such as AutoCAD, Solidworks, PTC Creo, etc.), programming software (ex. IDL, Matlab, Python, etc.), and laboratory equipment and hardware is also desired.

Mentor: Dr. Mark Panning, Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Background: Seismology offers the most comprehensive view of the internal structure of planetary bodies. The planned Dragonfly mission to Titan includes a seismometer, so understanding of seismic signals that we might see on Titan is critical. Studying such seismic motions can provide valuable information about the density, temperature and chemical structure of the interior, which has significant implications for our understanding of the evolution and potential habitability of planetary interiors.

Description: Seismic studies of planetary interiors have frequently been approached by approximating the 3D seismic wavefield using a 2D numerical approach. However, this approach lacks the ability to precisely model and characterize the seismic wavefield in the presence of heterogeneities such as observed surface topography, localized tectonics structures or trapped liquids in the ice shell. This project entails

(1) Constructing high-resolution regional 3D meshes of Titan's interior by (a) incorporating PlanetProfile, a thermodynamically self-consistent interior model package, (b) surface topography, (c) ice shell thickness variation, and (d) heterogeneities within the ice shell (Ice I) including lateral density variations, fractures, and melt lenses.

(2) Generating databases of continuous synthetic seismograms for models developed for Task 1 using Salvus, a numerical 3D wave propagation package.

(3) Analyzing synthetic seismograms to identify seismic phases, and compare signal and amplitude variations caused by 3D structures (Task 1).

Outcome: This study will contribute towards ongoing efforts to infer the interior structure of planetary bodies. The regional meshes designed for task 1 will help aid future global seismic simulations of Titan, and also lay the foundation for designing complex meshes for other planetary bodies such as designing a mesh incorporating tiger stripes in the south polar region of Enceladus or the chaos region on Europa. Databases generated from task 2 will be archived at JPL for further analysis. Results from task 3 could potentially be published in a scientific journal.

Required skills: Codes for developing meshes and interfacing with Salvus is within the Python framework. Therefore, familiarity with programming in Python is required.

Mentor: Dr. Shannon MacKenzie, JHU APL

Background: Spectroscopy at different wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum is a common technology used to study the composition of planetary surfaces. The planned Dragonfly mission to Titan includes different types of spectrometers, including the Dragonfly Gamma-ray and Neutron Spectrometer (DraGNS) and the Dragonfly Camera suite (DragonCam). DraGNS will measure abundances of key elements including C, H, N, O, S, P, Na, Cl, Mg, K, Si and Fe, while DragonCam will measure (a) reflected sunlight in three Bayer-pattern filter bandpasses and (b) reflected light from LEDs of several wavelengths. These complementary types of information will constrain the compositions of dozens of sites to be visited by Dragonfly.

Description: Several science team members have taken initial steps to construct a "library" of chemical compositions and reflected light spectra that would represent plausible Titan surface compositions, such as combinations of water ice and tholins. A full library of elemental compositions and spectra will provide a tool to assist with future interpretation of DraGNS and DragonCam measurements.

Tasks: This project entails construction of a library of candidate Titan surface compositions and their reflected light spectra, working with selected Dragonfly team members. Tasks include:

(1) Assemble plausible surface components based on a search of key papers in the literature. Create a series of composite multi-component mixtures based on Titan impact, cryovolcanic, and sedimentary processes.

(2) For each mixture, calculate the elemental composition that would be measured by DraGNS.

(3) For each mixture, model the composite spectrum assuming both intimate and macroscopic mixtures, as viewed by DragonCam through the Bayer filters and under LED illumination.

(4) Document and archive both the results and the programs used to determine them so that the library can be updated

Outcome: This study will create the initial version of the library of elemental abundances and reflectance spectral of possible Titan analog "rock types" to assist in interpretation of DraGNS and DragonCam results.

Required skills: A background in physics, geology, or chemistry and programming experience are preferred but not required.

This program is administered by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory's Internship Program Office.