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 2036, Dragonfly will journey farther than any robotic lander has ever traveled. With one hop 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 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 list of available research projects for the 2021 investigator cohort can be found below.

When applying, each student should include in an attachment (1) the name and contact information for the prospective faculty advisor at their home institution, and (2) 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.

Eligibility:

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 will have a 3.0 GPA
  • Eligible students must be U.S. citizens 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
Program Frequently Asked Questions

Application deadline: May 28, 2021.
Successful candidates will be notified by September 10, 2021.

Questions?
Please review the FAQ for answers.

Still have questions?
Email DragonflySEOContact@jhuapl.edu

Projects

Mentor: Dr. Melissa Trainer, NASA GSFC

Background: The Dragonfly payload includes the Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer, an instrument that will analyze and determine the chemical composition of samples that are drilled from the surface of Titan, specifically targeting organic molecules. At its core, DraMS is an ion trap mass spectrometer that measures ions (charged molecules) based on their molecular mass, which is related to the chemical structure. Solid samples are delivered to the inlets of DraMS by the sampling system, and the molecules in the solids can be probed in one of two ways: (1) laser desorption mode (LDMS), in which heavy molecules are "zapped" with an ultraviolet laser to create ions that are sent into the ion trap, and (2) gas chromatography mode (GCMS), in which samples are heated to ~600°C (>~1100°F) in an oven, and the evolved gases sent through gas chromatography columns that separate them out by size and type before an electron beam converts them into ions for measurement in the mass spectrometer. These two modes allow DraMS to probe different aspects of the sample composition.

Description: This project is one of a set of three projects for the Dragonfly Student and Early Career Investigator Program Cohort #2. One applicant will be selected for each project for a 2-year position spending 30% time annually on the project and attending Dragonfly team meetings, to be completed while pursuing a graduate degree in a STEM field at a U.S. college or university. This program targets student investigators who would not otherwise have opportunities to participate in a flight planetary science mission.

This project focuses on the LDMS mode of DraMS, and robustness to different surface sample compositions. Specifically, the student will work with DraMS scientists to explore the capability of LDMS to help us identify samples where the salt content may exceed the threshold for successful analysis using GCMS mode. The student would be trained to use our commercial LDMS instruments at Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) to measure a wide array of samples.

outcome: This project will contribute to the development of the DraMS instrument and the operational guidelines for both LDMS and GCMS measurements of surface samples. Results generated would aid in the interpretation of future DraMS results, and will be archived at NASA 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 concurrent study on the development of spectral/compositional library for interpretation of DragonCam/DraGNS measurements as part of a larger effort to prepare for surface operations on Titan.:

Tasks: The project entails:

  • Preparation of simulant surface samples with quantitative organic and salt contents. Examples include organic molecules (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, amino acids, etc.) in the presence of NaCl, MgSO4, and other salts that are anticipated to be present in the ice crust of Titan.
  • Measurement of samples with the laboratory LDMS instrument at ambient conditions.
  • Data analysis and interpretation, with preparation and presentation of findings to the DraMS science team.
  • Collaboration with gas chromatography scientists to develop further experiments identifying GCMS thresholds and sensitivities to salts.
  • Depending on progress, in the second year the student would repeat tasks 1-4 using a cryogenic apparatus that simulates the sample conditions for Dragonfly.
This project will primarily be completed in laboratories at NASA GSFC but in close collaboration with French gas chromatography colleagues residing at several institutions including Laboratoire atmosphères, milieux, observations spatiales (LATMOS), Laboratoire Interuniversitaire des Systèmes Atmosphériques (LISA), and Laboratoire pascal d'ingenierie geotechnique et des materiaux (LPGM).

Required skills: This project requires the ability to work both independently and in a team environment. Successful completion of some coursework in Chemistry is required. Laboratory experience in any physical science or engineering field is also required. Applicants must be U.S. citizens.

Desired skills: Experience with organic chemistry and/or analytical chemistry is desired.

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Mentors: Dr. Scot Rafkin, Southwest Research Institute (Boulder) & Dr. Claire Newman, Aeolis Research Corporation (Cornwall, UK)

Background: The entry vehicle carrying the Dragonfly rotorcraft will enter Titan's atmosphere travelling at thousands of meters per second. Atmospheric friction and then parachutes will slow it to the point where the rotorcraft can be safely released, a little over 1 km above the surface. The rotorcraft will then fly and land gently on the surface to begin its science investigation. Periodically, the Dragonfly rotorcraft will conduct flight to a new landing site and/or to perform reconnaissance of a new site. All of these aerial activities necessitate knowledge of atmospheric conditions—a weather prediction. Due to limited observational data, numerical models that simulate Titan's weather and climate are an important tool for obtaining this much-needed information.

Description: This project is one of a set of three projects for the Dragonfly Student and Early Career Investigator Program Cohort #2. One applicant will be selected for each project for a 2-year position spending 30% time annually on the project and attending Dragonfly team meetings, to be completed while pursuing a graduate degree in a STEM field at a U.S. college or university. This program targets student investigators who would not otherwise have opportunities to participate in a flight planetary science mission.

Climate and numerical weather prediction models that simulate the atmosphere of Earth have been adapted to Titan. This project focuses on configuring, running, and analyzing the output from these complex Titan atmospheric models to obtain predictions of Titan's atmosphere under scenarios that are most relevant to Dragonfly operations. Atmospheric modeling of turbulence, circulations over craters and over dune fields, and atmospheric wave activity are all possible modeling topics.

Outcome: The project will serve the dual purpose of providing the needed environmental information to the Dragonfly engineering team while advancing the broader scientific community's knowledge about the structure and dynamics of Titan's atmosphere. Engineering results are expected to be communicated in the form of presentations and technical reports. Scientific results are expected to be communicated in the form of peer-reviewed publications.

Tasks: The successful student candidate will undertake the following tasks using one or more models:

  • Learn the general code structure (FORTRAN) and major computational procedures upon which atmospheric models are constructed.
  • Configure the models and make minor code modifications to generate customized simulation scenarios.
  • Compile and run the modeling code(s) in a highly parallelized computational Linux environment.
  • Assist in the analysis of large model output data sets using existing graphical software tools and develop new analysis routines.
  • Assist with the communication of results to the Dragonfly team and the larger scientific community in the form of written publications and oral presentations.

Required skills: Demonstrated and strong programming experience in FORTRAN90, C/C++, and/or Python within the Linux O/S environment. Experience with data analysis and graphical software such as MATLAB, IDL, or Python plotting packages. B.S. in physical sciences with course work in calculus-based physics. Strong written and verbal communication, the ability to work as part of a team, and fascination with weather and/or planetary science is essential. Applicants must be U.S. citizens.

Desired skills: Experience or coursework in computational science or numerical methods.

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Mentors: Dr. Ann Parsons, GSFC & Dr. Patrick Peplowski, JHU APL

Background: The planned Dragonfly mission to Titan includes the Dragonfly Gamma-ray and Neutron Spectrometer (DraGNS) which will measure abundances of key elements including C, H, N, O, S, P, Na, Cl, Mg, K, Si and Fe in the surface materials on Titan. DraGNS will accomplish this task by first irradiating the surface of Titan directly beneath the lander with high energy neutrons from a pulsed neutron generator (PNG). These neutrons will then interact with the materials' nuclei to produce gamma rays and lower energy neutrons that are measured by DraGNS' Gamma Ray Spectrometers and Neutron Spectrometers. The energies of the measured gamma rays will identify the elements present and the intensities will determine the elemental abundances. Neutron measurements will provide information about the neutron scattering and absorption properties of Titan materials that will produce complementary elemental abundance data. Since the neutron absorption and scattering properties of ice are very different from those of rocky materials, the interpretation of DraGNS' gamma ray and neutron spectra will have to be tuned to Titan's icy environment.

Description: This project is one of a set of three projects for the Dragonfly Student and Early Career Investigator Program Cohort #2. One applicant will be selected for each project for a 2-year position spending 30% time annually on the project and attending Dragonfly team meetings, to be completed while pursuing a graduate degree in a STEM field at a U.S. college or university. This program targets student investigators who would not otherwise have opportunities to participate in a flight planetary science mission.

The surface materials on Titan are unlike those of any other planetary body that gamma-ray or sneutron spectroscopic instruments have investigated in the past. The interpretation of DraGNS data therefore has to be tuned to measure elemental abundances of elements in Titan's water-ice environment instead of on the usual rocky surfaces of the planetary bodies previously investigated using this technology. As a consequence, new measurements of Titan-relevant materials will greatly aid the development of DraGNS instrumentation and the data analysis efforts. In this project, a student would work with Dragonfly DraGNS mentors to help identify, plan and participate in the performance of measurements that should be made in the laboratory on Earth to help us understand how DraGNS behaves when landed on a world with water-ice as its "bedrock".

Outcome: The effects of the behavior of neutrons in a water-ice environment will be used to identify, plan and perform the crucial DraGNS elemental composition experiments on Earth in an environment that best mimics Titan's materials. The analysis of the resulting DraGNS test data will be used to inform later instrument calibration procedures on Earth as well as surface measurements on Titan.

Tasks:This project involves work with the mentors and other DraGNS Team members to develop and execute a preliminary laboratory test campaign using prototype and engineering models of the DraGNS instrument:

  1. Work closely with the DraGNS Team to understand how the DraGNS instrument works and what tests have been performed so far. The student would also gain familiarity with the literature describing the use of other gamma-ray neutron space instruments.
  2. Help identify and catalogue new DraGNS science measurements that should be made in the laboratory on Earth and how to best simulate the Titan surface environment. Note that Tasks 1) and 2) could be started remotely.
  3. Help plan how to perform these tests. This planning would require the student to :
    1. identify the DraGNS and related hardware available for testing
    2. identify the available test locations where a pulsed neutron generator (PNG) can be operated safely and list their benefits
    3. identify and help procure Titan chemical analog materials for testing
  4. Participate in the performance of these early tests as well as in the analysis and interpretation of the resulting data. This task would be best done when the student is able to work in Maryland at APL and GSFC.
  5. Document and archive the test description and results.

Required skills: It would be extremely helpful if the student had a physics or nuclear engineering background. The student could be either an engineer or a scientist but should have an interest in experimentation and instrument hardware testing. This project requires the ability to work both independently and in a team environment. Applicants must be U.S. citizen.

Required skills: It would be extremely helpful if the student had a physics or nuclear engineering background. The student could be either an engineer or a scientist but should have an interest in experimentation and instrument hardware testing. This project requires the ability to work both independently and in a team environment. Applicants must be U.S. citizen.

Desired skills: Experience with computer programming software tools for data analysis (e.g., IDL, Matlab, python, etc.), and laboratory equipment and hardware is also desired.

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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.