NASA CHOOSES THREE FINALISTS FOR FUTURE SPACE SCIENCE MISSION TO VENUS,
AN ASTEROID OR THE MOON
WASHINGTON -- NASA has selected three proposals as candidates for the
agency's next space venture to another celestial body in our solar
system. The final project selected in mid-2011 may provide a better
understanding of Earth's formation or perhaps the origin of life on
The proposed missions would probe the atmosphere and crust of Venus;
return a piece of a near-Earth asteroid for analysis; or drop a
robotic lander into a basin at the moon's south pole to return lunar
rocks back to Earth for study.
NASA will select one proposal for full development after detailed
mission concept studies are completed and reviewed. The studies begin
during 2010, and the selected mission must be ready for launch no
later than Dec. 30, 2018. Mission cost, excluding the launch vehicle,
is limited to $650 million.
"These are projects that inspire and excite young scientists,
engineers and the public," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator
for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in
Washington. "These three proposals provide the best science value
among eight submitted to NASA this year."
Each proposal team initially will receive approximately $3.3 million
in 2010 to conduct a 12-month mission concept study that focuses on
implementation feasibility, cost, management and technical plans.
Studies also will include plans for educational outreach and small
The selected proposals are:
The Surface and Atmosphere Geochemical Explorer, or SAGE, mission to
Venus would release a probe to descend through the planet's
atmosphere. During descent, instruments would conduct extensive
measurements of the atmosphere's composition and obtain
meteorological data. The probe then would land on the surface of
Venus, where its abrading tool would expose both a weathered and a
pristine surface area to measure its composition and mineralogy.
Scientists hope to understand the origin of Venus and why it is so
different from Earth. Larry Esposito of the University of Colorado in
Boulder, is the principal investigator.
The Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security
Regolith Explorer spacecraft, called Osiris-Rex, would rendezvous and
orbit a primitive asteroid. After extensive measurements, instruments
would collect more than two ounces of material from the asteriod's
surface for return to Earth. The returned samples would help
scientists better undertand and answer long-held questions about the
formation of our solar system and the origin of complex molecules
necessary for life. Michael Drake, of the University of Arizona in
Tucson, is the principal investigator.
MoonRise: Lunar South Pole-Aitken Basin Sample Return Mission would
place a lander in a broad basin near the moon's south pole and return
approximately two pounds of lunar materials for study. This region of
the lunar surface is believed to harbor rocks excavated from the
moon's mantle. The samples would provide new insight into the early
history of the Earth-moon system. Bradley Jolliff, of Washington
University in St. Louis, is the principal investigator.
The proposals were submitted to NASA on July 31, 2009, in response to
the New Frontiers Program 2009 Announcement of Opportunity. New
Frontiers seeks to explore the solar system with frequent,
medium-class spacecraft missions that will conduct high-quality,
focused scientific investigations designed to enhance understanding
of the solar system.
The final selection will become the third mission in the program. New
Horizons, NASA's first New Frontiers mission, launched in 2006, will
fly by the Pluto-Charon system in 2014 then target another Kuiper
Belt object for study. The second mission, called Juno, is designed
to orbit Jupiter from pole to pole for the first time, conducting an
in-depth study of the giant planet's atmosphere and interior. It is
slated for launch in August 2011.
All three of these missions have been proposed before (Osiris-Rex as a Discovery mission) and all three would provide excellent science. The final selection, I suspect, will come down to which provides the best combination of low risk within the budget. All three designs, I believe, are likely to have technical challenges, so I wouldn't want to handicap which is more likely to meet those criteria.
From a personal perspective, I favor the Venus mission because I think that understanding the other large terrestrial planet relates to questions that interest me more. But any of these would be excellent.