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.

Saturn’s moon 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.

Each student Investigator will work with one or more 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 is selected annually for two-year terms to work with the Dragonfly team. Students 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.

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


When applying, the candidate 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 they agree 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 are majoring in broad STEM fields such as chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics, engineering and computer science, and who do not have a background in planetary science, the geosciences, atmospheric science, or their associated subfields, are especially encouraged to apply.

  • Eligible students will have at least 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 a mentor on the Dragonfly team whose leads this project, 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. See above instructions on submission of a statement of support from the faculty mentor
Program FAQ's

Application deadline:
June 16, 2023

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

Please review the FAQ for answers.

Still have questions?


Mentors: Dr. Ellen Czaplinski, Jet Propulsion Laboratory; Dr. Shannon MacKenzie and Dr. Jorge Núñez, The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory

Background: At 90K, Titan’s surface is expected to be composed of water ice and organics. The latter may be liquid (e.g., methane and ethane) or solid (e.g., acetylene, butane, and benzene). We expect that processes that mix and modify solids and liquids here on Earth are also at work on Titan. Although primary compounds and large-scale geologic features on Titan’s surface are known, little is known about the microscopic-scale morphology of these compounds, and how their morphology may evolve after liquid methane and/or ethane interacts with the surface. Building a catalog of microscopic-scale morphologies that Dragonfly may encounter will provide resources for the analysis of Titan’s surface at various scales and will help us to understand the geologic context of these measurements.

Description: This project will generate analogs of Titan surface materials in a laboratory at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and image these analogs with a camera similar to the DragonCam microscopic imager. This catalog of microscopic-scale shapes and sizes will reveal differences between large-scale crystal structures of different compounds. Understanding these differences will provide new context for the images that Dragonfly will capture with DragonCam and will therefore drive decisions regarding when Dragonfly should take samples with other instruments.

Tasks: The student will be trained to use a temperature-controlled cryostage and microscope at JPL to image the samples. Samples would also be imaged at APL using the microscopic imager benchtop model. The project entails:

  • Preparing various organic and aqueous samples (pure and mixtures) and analyzing their morphology under controlled temperatures using a cryostage and microscope.
  • Analyzing experimental results using relevant imaging software
  • Developing a catalog of sample morphologies for each compound and mixture of compounds that are relevant to Titan’s surface.
  • Depending on progress, the student may also analyze cryostage samples with a Raman spectrometer to correlate morphology with composition, in the case of mixed samples.

This project will primarily be completed in a lab at JPL in close collaboration with scientists and engineers at APL.

Outcome: The proposed images will provide a catalog for compounds that Dragonfly is expected to encounter on the surface. This project will contribute to the development of DragonCam and the operational guidelines for imaging Titan’s surface. Results generated would aid in the interpretation of future DragonCam results, and will be archived at JPL and APL for further analysis. The results of this study could potentially be published in a scientific journal or presented at a scientific conference.

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 organic chemistry and/or analytical chemistry is desired.

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Mentor: Jake Strang, The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL)

Background: One responsibility of the Dragonfly Science Operations Center (SOC) is to develop data visualization tools so that the Science Operations team can view, interpret, and analyze science data transmitted back to Earth from the many science instruments on the Dragonfly lander. These tools will be most effective if they share a strong visual language that was created with an understanding of the varying needs, standards, and expectations across data and science types – meteorology, astrobiology, seismology, chemistry, and more.

Description: The Guest Investigator will develop a software library of modular components to be used in Dragonfly SOC tools. These components will then serve as building blocks for a science dashboard, picking visualizations from the library and combining them to create a unified display of the many Dragonfly science products.


  1. Surveying and working with scientists to understand the types of data and visualizations that they desire, utilize, and have experience with
  2. Crafting a “design language” for consistency of communication, usability, and accessibility (including disability accessibility) across SOC tools
  3. Developing reusable web application components into a shared library
  4. Constructing data visualizations for Dragonfly instruments out of the component library
  5. Outcome: By the end of the program, the student will have created a reusable repository of software that influences and enables the creation of Dragonfly SOC tools. Through a focus on design accessibility, this project will have a long- lasting and positive impact on the team members who use SOC tools.

    Required skills: Degree in computer science, or a related science or engineering field with demonstrable software experience. Experience in web front-end languages such as HTML, CSS, and Javascript is required. Must be able to work effectively both independently and in a team.

    Desired skills: Visual design and/or data visualization experience are desired but not required.

    Apply Now

Mentor: Dr. Hari Nair, The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL)

Background: DRAMPACT (Dragonfly Resource Allocation, Mission Planning, and Commanding Toolkit) is the planning tool for the Science Operations Center (SOC). Resource modeling is a key function of DRAMPACT. Given an operations plan, it simulates the data collected and energy expended during the course of the mission to ensure that we stay within Dragonfly mission constraints.

Description: Dragonfly is a severely energy-limited mission. Additionally, the power source degrades over time, further reducing the energy available. The DRAMPACT developers work with the science, instrument, and mission operations teams to plan activities which fit within energy and data volume constraints. While DRAMPACT development will continue over the course of the mission, there are a number of capabilities that have yet to be developed. The Guest Investigator may contribute to development of any or all of the following capabilities depending on interest and experience:


  • Task: Work with instrument teams and mission engineers to create a library of payload activities. Payload activities are placed on the spacecraft/instrument commanding schedules for resource modeling.
    Outcome: a well-defined and extensible library of activities that will be used for planning surface operations.
  • Task: Build a GUI for science planners to interact with a Dragonfly schedule to modify and validate planned observations.
    Outcome: a robust interface for generating, modifying, and publishing science planning schedules for mission operations.
  • Task: Model when science products are downlinked based on data priority and downlink schedule.
    Outcome: For each planning cycle, a schedule of what data has been downlinked and queued for ground processing, what data remains on the lander, and when remaining data is expected to be downlinked. Flag expected data that does not arrive. This task is crucial for management of onboard storage and downlink bandwidth.
  • Task: Interface with the to-be-developed Mission Operations Center (MOC) planning tools to ensure consistent predictions for energy and data usage and downlink product schedules.
    Outcome: A rigorous comparison of two separate sets of tools (both undergoing active development) to ensure that science plans can be executed within mission constraints.

Outcome: Each of the outlined tasks requires interfacing with a variety of users to understand their needs and implement an outcome that will have a long-lasting and positive impact on the SOC team and operations planning.

Required skills: A background in computer science, engineering, or the physical sciences, with proficiency in Java, is required.

Desired skills: Experience with Linux shell scripting and developing graphical user interfaces is 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.