Dragonfly Student and Early Career Investigator Program, Cohort #2: Tuning DraGNS’ Interpretations to Titan’s Surface

SES - Space Exploration Sector

Dragonfly Student and Early Career Investigator Program, Cohort #2: Tuning DraGNS’ Interpretations  to Titan’s Surface

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. colllege or university. This program targets student investigators who would not otherwise have opportunities to participate in a flight planetary science mission. More information on the program can be found on the Dragonfly web site at https://dragonfly.jhuapl.edu/Student-Opportunities/.

The surface materials on Titan are unlike those of any other planetary body that gamma-ray or neutron 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. 


  1. 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.


  1. 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 


  1. 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. 


  1. Document and archive the test description and results.


Academic Discipline Desired:

STEM field


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. citizens.


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.







Previous Job Searches

Similar Listings

SES - Space Exploration Sector

*Laurel, *Maryland, *United States


SES - Space Exploration Sector

*Laurel, *Maryland, *United States


TSX - Talent Services Department

*Laurel, *Maryland, *United States