An ‘Audacious’ Mission to Saturn’s Titan Moon

Winter 2020

Kenneth Hibbard

Among solar system destinations, Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, is uniquely intriguing.  A liquid water ocean flows below its water-ice crust. Seas of liquid methane and ethane support a hydrological cycle in which these compounds evaporate, form clouds, and even rain upon the surface. A rich bevy of organic materials there could provide clues about how life formed on Earth, whether life exists on Titan now, and what it takes for extraterrestrial destinations to be habitable.

A new billion-dollar mission known as Dragonfly could help gather these clues from Titan’s surface by using a drone the size of a small car to fly from location to location, collecting and analyzing samples. It’s the type of project that Kenneth Hibbard, MS ’09, has been waiting his entire life to be a part of. Now group supervisor of the Space Systems Engineering Group at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Hibbard will serve as Dragonfly’s technical lead.

Hibbard says he’s always been a space buff. He remembers asking his parents to buy breakfast cereals purely for the space shuttle model inside. In his sixth-grade yearbook, his classmates penned notes wishing him the best of luck venturing into space.

But eventually, he realized that he’d be more likely to get a job supporting the space industry than he would as an astronaut. To get there, he majored in aerospace engineering at Penn State University, taking a position at the Goddard Space Flight Center soon after graduation. There, he worked in mission operations, supporting day-to-day needs.

But Hibbard found himself yearning to design mission concepts rather than implement someone else’s. After taking a position at APL in 2004, he started a master’s program at the Whiting School in systems engineering and technical management through the Engineering for Professionals program.

The degree propelled him into serving key roles developing proposals, including the proposal for the Dragonfly project, which was selected last June by NASA to be the next mission in its New Frontiers line of medium-class planetary science missions. Dragonfly is scheduled for launch in 2026 and to arrive at Titan in 2034. 

“We are trying to do something pretty audacious,” says Hibbard, “but this is why we’re in the business: to do these incredible missions that can forever change humanity.”