Thursday, January 7, 2016

New Frontiers Mission #4

I plan to do several blog posts on the New Frontiers 4 selection, and the list of missions that can be proposed.  For now, though, here's a brief summary of NASA's announcement plus the text of the announcement.

Big News: A mission to Titan/Enceladus has been added to the list of missions that scientists can propose:

Comet Surface Sample Return,
Lunar South Pole-Aitken Basin Sample Return,
Ocean Worlds (Titan and Enceladus),
Saturn Probe,
Trojan Tour and Rendezvous, and
Venus In Situ Explorer

Selection in spring 2019, launch in 2024 or 2025.  Up to three MMRTGs available.

Text of the announcement:

Community Announcement Regarding New Frontiers Program Announcement of

Estimated Release of draft AO .....................………...July 2016 (target)
Estimated Release of final
AO.....................................January 2017 (target)
Estimated Proposal due date........................................90
days after AO release

This community announcement is an advance notice of NASA’s Science
Mission Directorate (SMD) plan to release a Draft Announcement of
Opportunity (AO) for New Frontiers Program mission investigations with
a target release date of July 2016.

The New Frontiers Program conducts Principal Investigator (PI)-led
space science investigations in SMD’s planetary programs under a
not-to-exceed cost cap for the PI-Managed Mission Cost (PMMC).  At the
conclusion of Phase A concept studies, it is planned that one New
Frontiers investigation will be selected to continue into subsequent
mission phases.  There will be no Missions of Opportunity (MO)
solicited as part of this AO.  All MOs are now solicited through the
Stand Alone Mission of Opportunity Notice (SALMON) AO.  New Frontiers
Program investigations must address NASA’s planetary science
objectives as described in 2014 NASA Strategic Plan and the 2014 NASA
Science Plan.  Both documents are now available

Investigations are limited to the following mission themes (listed
without priority):

Comet Surface Sample Return,
Lunar South Pole-Aitken Basin Sample Return,
Ocean Worlds (Titan and Enceladus),
Saturn Probe,
Trojan Tour and Rendezvous, and
Venus In Situ Explorer.

Five themes are described in the Planetary Science Decadal Survey.
The Ocean Worlds theme for this announcement is tentatively focused on
the search for signs of extant life and/or characterizing the
potential habitability of Titan or Enceladus.   The draft AO will
fully elucidate information on the mission themes.

The time frame for the solicitation is intended to be:

Release of final AO...........................................January
2017 (target)
Preproposal conference...................................~3 weeks
after final AO release
Proposals due ...................................................~90
days after AO release
Selection for competitive Phase A studies....November 2017 (target)
Concept study reports due...............................October 2018 (target)
Down-selection .................................................May
2019 (target)
KDP B .................................................................August
2019 (target)
Launch readiness date ....................................2024

PI-Managed Mission Cost (PMMC) for investigations are capped at a
Phase A-D cost of $850M (FY 2015$) with exclusions as noted in this
announcement.  The now-standard 25% minimum reserve on Phases A-D will
be required within the PMMC.  Operations costs (Phase E and F) are not
included in the PMMC, but will be evaluated for reasonableness.  This
exclusion for operation costs will not apply to the development of
flight or ground software, ground hardware, or testbed development or
refurbishment that occurs after launch.  These activities will be
considered deferred Phase C/D work and their costs will be included
under the PMMC.  Only costs related to spacecraft operations will be
excluded from the PMMC.  Lower-cost investigations and cost-efficient
operations are encouraged.

Launch Vehicle costs and procurement will be the responsibility of
NASA.  A standard launch performance capability will be defined and
provided as GFE and its cost will not be included in the PMMC.  The
cost of mission specific and special launch services, such as for
higher performance launch vehicles or the use of nuclear materials,
are the responsibility of the PI and must be included within the PMMC.
Details of these costs are still under discussion.

The value of foreign contributions remains constrained as was done for
the recent Discovery Program AO.  The total value of foreign
contributions may not exceed one-third of the PMMC, and the value of
foreign contributions to the science payload may not exceed one-third
of the total payload cost.

Investigations may propose the use Multi-Mission Radioisotope
Thermoelectric Generators (MMRTG) and Radioisotope Heater Units
(RHUs).  Some of the costs for the use of these systems and materials
will be included in the PMMC as detailed below.  These costs are not
final and may change.

Up to three MMRTGs are available at the cost of $105M for one unit,
$135M for two units, and $165M for three units.  The cost for the
unit(s) is included in the PMMC.  In addition, the usage of MMRTG(s)
requires delaying the LRD by at least one year to no earlier than 2025
to allow for mission-specific funding to support provision of MMRTGs.
43 RHUs are available as GFE, and the cost of the units is not
included in the PMMC.  However, the PMMC will include approximately
$26M of costs associated with the use of RHUs.

In addition to the costs above, investigations using either MMRTGs or
RHUs will also incur approximately $28M or $21M, respectively, in
costs for special launch services against the PMMC.

NASA will provide incentives for technology infusion into New
Frontiers investigations.  NASA is considering providing technologies
as Government-Furnished Equipment (GFE), including up to 43 RHUs and
the NASA Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) ion propulsion system (two
flight model power processing units and two thrusters).  NASA is also
considering providing an increase to the PMMC cap for investigations
utilizing the Heat Shield for Extreme Entry Environment Technology
(HEEET), a woven Thermal Protection System.  In addition, NASA is
considering limiting the risk assessment of certain technologies to
only their accommodation on the spacecraft and the mission

This incentivized technology list is not complete, and decisions on
the specific technologies and the nature of their associated
incentives will be made before the release of a draft AO.  A
Technology Workshop will be held in early 2016 to provide technology
developers a chance to provide detailed information to proposers.  All
NASA-incentivized technologies will participate in this workshop, but
other participants will be welcome as well.

New Frontiers Program investigations involving entry, descent, and
landing (EDL) into the atmosphere of a Solar System object (including
the Earth) shall include an Engineering Science Activity, to be funded
outside of the cost cap, to obtain diagnostic and technical data about
vehicle performance and entry environments. Details of the goals and
objectives of this activity will be posted on the New Frontiers
Program Acquisition Website ( in
the Program Library.

New Frontiers Program investigations may propose activities that have
the potential to broaden the scientific impact of investigations as
optional Science Enhancement Options (SEOs).  SEOs include, but are
not limited to, guest investigator programs, general observer
programs, participating scientist programs, interdisciplinary
scientist programs, and archival data analysis programs.  NASA is
considering allowing New Frontiers Program investigations to also
propose Technology Demonstration Opportunities (TDOs) to demonstrate
new capabilities.  TDOs and SEOs are funded outside of the PMMC cap
and may possibly not be selected even if the parent mission is
selected for flight.

NASA will release a draft of the New Frontiers AO in the summer of
2016.  The draft AO will be based on the recent Discovery AO, as well
as the Standard PI-led Mission AO Template.  NASA has begun its
regular assessment and revision of the Standard AO, and, once it is
complete, the Draft New Frontiers AO will be written and provided for
public comment.  Proposers should read the Draft New Frontiers AO
carefully when it is released.

NASA has not approved the issuance of the New Frontiers AO and this
notification does not obligate NASA to issue the AO and solicit
proposals. Any costs incurred by prospective investigators in
preparing submissions in response to this notification or the planned
Draft New Frontiers AO are incurred completely at the submitter's own

Further information will be posted on the New Frontiers Program
Acquisition Page at as it becomes

Questions may be addressed to Dr. Curt Niebur, New Frontiers Program
Lead Scientist, Planetary Science Division, Science Mission
Directorate, NASA, Washington, DC 20546; Tel.: (202) 358-0390; E-mail:


  1. A while back I read a astrodynamics paper by Otsuka that proved that Cassini could at end of mission flyby Titan numerous times to an escape trajectory back to Jupiter in 9 years.So I thought perhaps you could combine several decadal survay goals into 1 mission?
    Enceladeus sample return could be combined with Jupiter Trojan tour along with Earth flybys(to return sample)

  2. i dont like moon sample return, i think chinese or russians can do it better.
    i dont like trojan mission, it feels more like a discovery mission.
    i dont like saturn probe because of cassini end mission.
    i like the other three.

  3. With the recent push seen in our outer planet exploration, I could see NASA spinning off the new Ocean Worlds Program to compete along the same lines as Discovery, New Frontiers and Flagship Programs. This might be wishful thinking, but with the development of the SLS, they will need more programs to help support the expense of building more and more of these. Van, I am hoping a future post will delve into this new Ocean Worlds Program (of course once more info is available)and my hope is to see s revitalized Titan Mare Explorer mission which we grossly "missed the boat" on. Perhaps as a piggyback to that Saturn Probe program so direct line of site to earth won't be necessary.

  4. Once again, the ice giants have been neglected from this sort of lists, despite the rising interest and the frequent proposals made to fit into even crazily shrunk budgets. It's been 30 years since the last and only such explorations, easily over 50 or 60 by the time it happens a second time. I fully agree with the dismisses made by the second comment (the anonymous), am also hoping that Veritas and Lucy become the winners in the Discovery competition, and that the Ocean Worlds mission get this 4th New Frontiers. Van, just how likely do you think it is that a Uranus mission is chosen as the next flagship? after the whole Europa's thing materializes, of course...

  5. Ken - As you say, very little is known about any possible Ocean Worlds program except that it appears to be focused only on those with higher probabilities of life. I'd like to see a program like the old Mars program with a dedicated funding stream and regular missions. If NASA were to do a New Frontiers-class mission every 5 years, it would need something like (back of the envelope estimate) $250M/year increase. Based on some conversations I've had, it appears that it would be difficult to have a trajectory that sets up a spacecraft to do both good relay from a Titan lake lander and a Saturn atmospheric probe.

    Esther - NASA has funded a study of concepts for missions to Uranus and/or Neptune with the expectation that this will be a Flagship-class mission selected by the next Decadal Survey (to be completed around 2022). I don't think that a compelling mission to these worlds could be done within a New Frontiers budget.

  6. I dont think that ice giant have been neglected, its just that they are so far away and not extremely interesting (like Europa or Mars). I dont want to see NF mission to Uranus. It would be tiny even with SLS and would just delay real exploration for another 50 years, and there are so many better things to do with NF program. NASA flagship missions have been: all outer planets initial reconnaissance, Jupiter system in depth, Saturn system in depth, Mars, Mars, Europa. This is very resonable. NASA is considering ice giants mission as the next flagship, possibly both of them. This makes a lot of sense to me. Only other missions that could fly instead as next flagship as i see it are Venus mission (i believe behind Uranus mission in priority in the last decadal survey) and Mars sample return. With Akatsuki, Venera-D and very likely chinese and indian missions i dont see Venus flagship mission happening soon. Mars sample return will happen next decade, probably as 3 missions of wich one is already NASA flagship. It remains to be seen what else will NASA have to do for that mission or what will ESA do and who else will help (roscosmos probably with ESA and CNSA if they become capable of that, JAXA will also probably help somehow). After exomars ESA will probably have to help roscosmos do a proposed phobos sample return becouse of russian help with exomars and JUICE. It is intended to be preparation for Mars sample return so it is possible that NASA wont need to commit another flagship mission to Mars. We will have to wait for ESA ministerial meeting in december to find out more. Anyway becouse of all that i believe ice giants fllagship mission will most likely be next one for NASA.

  7. 2006: New Horizons launch
    2011: Juno launch
    2016: Osiris Rex launch
    2024: New Frontiers 4 launch
    It appears the frequency for this program is slipping to closer to one per decade. For that I am disappointed...

  8. Atom - This is a reflection of the planetary program budget cuts early this decade.

  9. Van, thanks for the response. Unfortunately I see the budgetary problems continuing well into the future. I could see the NF4 budget being consumed by the Europa lander, which is a favorable outcome. The (probable) flagship cost for Mars sample return post 2020 and Ice Giant orbiter(s), makes apparent the whole planetary program will continue to whither if the annual budget doesn't increase to around $2B/yr.

  10. Do reduced cost rates from launch vehicles like Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy make any difference here, or is most of the cost spent on building and monitoring the probes?

  11. Hi Greg - The costs in the post are for the PI costs -- spacecraft, instruments, data analysis. NASA will pick up the costs for launch and mission operations outside this budget. Cheaper launch options will leave more money for future missions.

  12. The 3 criteria for a planet are silly. Only Jupiter clears its gravity. I prefer the science value of a world. If it formed round, and if it orbits the Sun are okay. I suppose you don't want the orbit to be too far out at its apogee. The real key to me is the dynamics of the system. As Pluto has interesting satellites that is a plus. The key seems that Pluto has weather when it is nearest to the Sun. There should probably be a dynamic checklist of a half dozen criteria that changes as we send probes. Having weather, having satellites (Charon is large), are big indicators of a planet. Maybe its geology, once we know a better science of geology, will be a factor. If we are defining it as round, we really mean a geological characteristic. Does the new planet have a water moon?

  13. ...the point of my post, is you can use the definition of the word "planet", to help determine where and how much to fund, your Planetary Missions. Right now it is a democratic vote of a bunch astronomers. The current definition mentions a round object. If you capture the science value of that roundness, the geology of it, you have just helped NASA out. As it is, orbiting a gas giant gives a moon the potential for liquid water...which makes a lot of Moons better than planets. There is an engineering and mining metric too, beyond science. Weather seems to screen out a lot of Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud object, much better than does "clearing your orbit". That is a Catholic definition criteria, whether the object is big and round.