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 2027 and reaching Titan in 2033, Dragonfly will journey farther than any robotic lander has ever traveled. With one hop on average every other Titan day (one Titan day equals 16 Earth days), the rotorcraft will travel from its initial landing site to areas over 100 kilometers away during the planned ~3.3-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 summer and 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. A faculty mentor at each student’s home institution will be granted travel support to attend the annual Dragonfly Student & Early Career Investigator Program kickoff meeting. A list of available research projects for the 2022 investigator cohort can be found below.

When applying, each student should include in an attachment (1) a cover letter, (2) a curriculum vitae, CV, (3) the name and contact information for the prospective faculty advisor at their home institution, and (4) a 2-3 sentence statement from the prospective faculty advisor in which (s)he agrees to support the student, should they be selected to work on Dragonfly.


An intent of this program is to broaden mission participation; thus, it is intended for students who are not affiliated with, and whose faculty and/or research advisors are not involved with, Dragonfly or other spacecraft missions. Students who do not have a background in planetary science, the geosciences, atmospheric science, or their associated subfields are encouraged to apply.

  • Eligible students will have a 3.0 GPA
  • Eligible students must be U.S. citizens pursuing a master's or doctoral degree in the physical sciences, biological sciences, computer sciences, mathematics or engineering at a U.S. institution.
  • Applicants must have demonstrated ability to conduct independent research or development
  • Applicants must have 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
Program FAQ's

Application deadline:
May 27, 2022.

Successful candidates will be notified by September 30, 2022.

Having trouble submitting your documents? Please email them to latonya.robinson@jhuapl.edu to have them uploaded.

Please review the FAQ for answers.

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Mentor: Dr. Aaron Brandis, NASA Ames Research Center

Background: The Dragonfly Entry Aerosciences Measurements (DrEAM) is an instrumentation suite imbedded in the Thermal Protection System (TPS) around the aeroshell that products the Dragonfly lander during entry into Titan’s atmosphere. DrEAM will provide data about the aerothermal and aerodynamic environment during the Dragonfly entry at Titan. DrEAM will make measurements of the TPS temperature, pressure and heat flux, and these measurements will be used to validate NASA aeroscience modeling tools and potentially prompt model updates.

Description: This project focuses on several aspects of DrEAM, related to Concept of Operations (ConOps), calibration and data compression. Similar data has been taken at Mars as part of the MEDLI-2 instrumentation package that flew on Mars 2020. Analyzing the data returned as part of that effort could inform DrEAM ConOps, such as, how long does it take for sensors to equilibrate when turning on after arrival at Titan? The cruise to Titan will take seven years – are there ways we can understand the impact of this long cruise time through space on the instrument calibrations? Compression of data before sending it back to Earth will be important to maximize DrEAM’s science value, so estimating the data compression ratio for the various DrEAM sensor types, and impact on science return, is needed. The student will work closely with DrEAM engineers to help provide insights into ConOps, sensor calibration and data compression.

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

  • Analyzing available MEDLI-2 measurements to see if there is something from that data set that can inform DrEAM ConOps;
  • Determining methods to track sensor calibration changes during cruise;
  • Evaluating data compression estimates of (and/or a variable data schedule for) various DrEAM sensor types

Outcome: This project will contribute to one or more of the development of the DrEAM ConOps, a methodology for tracking any changes in sensor calibration and/or an estimate of the data compression ratio for various DrEAM sensor types.

More information on the Dragonfly mission and instruments can be found in the videos at https://dragonfly.jhuapl.edu/Gallery/#Gallery

Required skills: This project requires a background in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, systems engineering, computer science, or programming, and the ability to work both independently and in a team environment.

Desired skills: Courework in physics and chemistry is preferred but not required.

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Mentors: Dr. Morgan Cable, Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Short Summary: This opportunity is for a graduate student to assist the Dragonfly team in understanding how the volatility of components in a Titan surface sample might change when those compounds are present in complex mixtures. Research tasks would include literature searches, calculations/modeling, and experimental work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). This study is important to understand the range of physical properties that the Dragonfly sampling system may encounter, and would aid in the interpretation of DraMS analyses, in particular those involving temperature ramps.

Background: One of the primary instruments aboard the Dragonfly spacecraft will be the Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer (DraMS), which will determine the chemical composition of samples that are obtained from Titan’s surface. DraMS will be able to analyze these samples using two modes: (1) laser desorption mode (LDMS), which uses a soft ionization technique at 30 Torr and 165 K (-108 °C) to create ions that are sent into the ion trap of the instrument, and (2) gas chromatography mode (GCMS), where solid samples are heated to ~600 °C in an oven, and the resulting gases are sent through gas chromatography (GC) columns to separate species before an electron beam converts them into ions for measurement in the mass spectrometer. Samples from Titan’s surface are expected to be unlike anything we have encountered before, and work is underway to understand the physical and chemical properties of simple and complex aqueous and organic ices to inform how such samples may behave during collection and analysis by instruments such as DraMS. There are also important implications for surface property measurements and imaging to be performed, as well as interpreting the interactions with the surface with the DrACO sampling system.

Description: This project focuses on the physical properties of organic and aqueous ices that might determine whether and how the sample is analyzed by DraMS, or how the data obtained might be interpreted. Specifically, the student will work with Dragonfly scientists to understand how the volatility of Titan-relevant species may change depending on pressure and temperature conditions and heating rates. In addition, the student will experimentally explore whether the volatility of certain species changes if the compound is pure or in a complex mixture or matrix (such as a clathrate or co-crystal).

Tasks: The student would be trained to use a simple pressure manifold with temperature-controlled stage at JPL to measure the pressure change for a wide array of organic and aqueous ices (pure and mixtures) when they are vaporized. The project entails:

  • Thorough literature search to catalogue reported volatilities of key species expected to be present at Titan under the expected pressure (30-1140 Torr) and temperature (90-873 K) ranges the samples would experience.
  • Exploration of calculations/modeling (Clausius-Clapeyron, etc.) to extrapolate existing measurements to cover portions of the T-P phase diagram relevant to Titan and/or DraMS that have not been addressed experimentally.
  • Preparation of various organic and aqueous ice samples (pure and mixtures) and analysis of the maximum pressure reached over a temperature ramp using a pressure manifold at JPL. These would include mixtures that are known to form inclusion compounds (clathrates, co-crystals) which could affect the volatilities of the guest molecules.
  • Analysis of experimental results and calculation of predicted pressure increases for a Dragonfly sample cup containing volatile compounds that is subjected to analysis by DraMS.
  • Depending on progress, in the second year the student would repeat tasks 1-4 but focus on mixtures that might undergo chemistry upon vaporization (e.g., carbamation, etc.).

This project will primarily be completed in a lab at JPL but in close collaboration with Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) and (as appropriate) French GC colleagues residing at several institutions (LATMOS, LISA, LPGM) and other payload scientists at APL.

Outcome: This project will contribute to the development of the DraMS instrument and the operational guidelines for measurements of surface samples. Results generated would aid in the interpretation of future DraMS results, and will be archived at JPL and GSFC for further analysis. The study could potentially be published in a scientific journal or presented at a scientific conference. The findings will also be compared with results from a related study concerning the development of a spectral/compositional library for interpretation of DragonCam/DraGNS and potentially DraGMet measurements as part of a larger effort to prepare for surface operations on Titan.

More information on the Dragonfly mission and instruments can be found in the videos at https://dragonfly.jhuapl.edu/Gallery/#Gallery

Required skills: This project requires the ability to work both independently and in a team environment. Successful completion of some coursework in chemistry and physics, and laboratory experience in any physical science or engineering field are required.

Desired skills: Relevant background in thermodynamics, organic chemistry and/or analytical chemistry is desired.

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Mentors: Dr. Ellen Stofan and Dr. Emily Martin, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Background: Information preserved in planetary surface features can be diagnostic of how they formed and how they have been modified through time. The properties of tectonic features such as faults (i.e., cracks or breaks in planetary surfaces) can be used to identify their modes of formation. In addition, fault interactions and relationships with other surface features can provide information on the relative timing of their formation. The suite of cameras on the Dragonfly rotorcraft will observe Titan’s surface fractures at a variety of scales. These data will help us to determine the relative timing of surface modification processes and will aid in the subsequent identification of terrains and surface features that may be ancient or that may have been recently modified.

Description: As evidenced by the global distribution of mountains and hills, Titan’s surface has been heavily modified by tectonic processes. However, detailed observations of individual faults and fractures have not yet been made. Building a catalog of fracture patterns and morphologies will provide resources for the analysis of Titan’s surface fractures at various scales and will help us to understand when they formed and how they have changed over time.

Tasks: During this project the student will develop catalogs of diagnostic fracture patterns and morphologies that are relevant to Titan. The information in these catalogs will aid the Dragonfly team in interpreting the history of terrains and surface features of interest on the icy moon. All tasks will draw upon examples from across the solar system, including Earth, and will be tailored to the Titan environment.

  • Develop a catalog of diagnostic fracture patterns related to processes known or expected to be at work on Titan, such as impact cratering, volcanoes, and crater subsidence. The catalog will cover fracture patterns at multiple scales.
  • Develop a catalog of diagnostic fracture morphologies related and relevant to the unique environments on Titan. The catalog will cover fracture morphologies at various scales that are relevant to the Dragonfly imagers.

Outcome: The proposed catalogs will provide a resource for developing the geological history of various regions on Titan. This will allow the Dragonfly team to quickly identify the relative ages and the relative amounts of modification of specific features on Titan’s surface.

More information on the Dragonfly mission and instruments can be found in the videos at https://dragonfly.jhuapl.edu/Gallery/#Gallery

Required skills: A background in the physical sciences, mathematics, material science, or engineering and a willingness to learn geospatial software packages such as ArcGIS are required.

Desired skills: Experience or coursework in image processing and editing software may be helpful, but is not required.

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The application period for the 2020 opportunity is now closed.
Successful candidates will be notified by September 30, 2020.

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