NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, would manage one of the two missions chosen as finalists for concept development under the New Frontiers program and contribute instrumentation to the other. Both missions have significant participation from Goddard scientists.
Two more Goddard-managed mission concepts were selected to receive technology development funds to prepare for future competitions.
The selections were announced on Dec. 20 following an extensive and competitive peer review process. The concepts were chosen from 12 proposals submitted in April under a New Frontiers program announcement of opportunity.
Goddard would provide project management for the Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return, or CAESAR, mission led by Steve Squyres of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. One of two missions selected for concept development, CAESAR seeks to return a sample from 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, a comet that was successfully explored by ESA's (European Space Agency's) Rosetta spacecraft, to determine its origin and history.
CAESAR is designed to address questions regarding the nature of the solar system's starting materials and how these primitive components came together to form planets and give rise to life. These science goals include evaluating the potential role of comets in delivering water and organics to the early Earth.
Also selected for concept development is the Dragonfly mission, a drone-like rotorcraft that would explore the prebiotic chemistry and habitability of dozens of sites on Saturn's moon Titan, an ocean world in our solar system. Elizabeth Turtle from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, is the lead investigator, with APL providing project management.
Goddard would contribute one of Dragonfly's instruments, a mass spectrometer that would identify chemical components available on the surface and processes at work to produce biologically relevant compounds. Goddard also will provide the electronics and the neutron generator for another instrument, the neutron-activated gamma-ray spectrometer, which will measure bulk elemental surface composition.
The CAESAR and Dragonfly missions will receive funding through the end of 2018 to further develop and mature their concepts. NASA plans to select one of these investigations in the spring of 2019 to continue on to subsequent mission phases.
"This is a giant leap forward in developing our next bold mission of science discovery," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "These are tantalizing investigations that seek to answer some of the biggest questions in our solar system today."
"Congratulations to all the teams on their selection, and we look forward to an eventful 2018 and the opportunity to move forward on these exciting projects," said Goddard Center Director Chris Scolese.
The selected mission will be the fourth in NASA's New Frontiers portfolio, a series of principal investigator-led planetary science investigations that fall under a development cost cap of approximately $850 million. Its predecessors are the New Horizons mission to Pluto and a Kuiper Belt object known as 2014 MU69, the Juno mission to Jupiter, and OSIRIS-REx, which will rendezvous with and return a sample of the asteroid Bennu.
NASA also announced the selection of two mission concepts that will receive technology development funds to prepare them for future mission competitions.
The concepts selected for technology development are:
Venus In situ Composition Investigations (VICI)
Led by Lori Glaze at Goddard, the VICI mission concept will further develop the Venus Element and Mineralogy Camera to operate under the harsh conditions on Venus. The instrument uses lasers on a lander to measure the mineralogy and elemental composition of rocks on the surface of Venus.
Enceladus Life Signatures and Habitability (ELSAH)
The ELSAH mission concept will receive funds to develop cost-effective techniques that limit spacecraft contamination and thereby enable life detection measurements on cost-capped missions. The principal investigator is Chris McKay of NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley, and the managing NASA center is Goddard.
The call for concepts was limited to six mission themes: comet surface sample return, lunar south pole-Aitken Basin sample return, ocean worlds (Titan and/or Enceladus), Saturn probe, Trojan asteroid tour and rendezvous, and Venus in situ explorer.
New Frontiers Program investigations address NASA's planetary science objectives as described in the 2014 NASA Strategic Plan and the 2014 NASA Science Plan. The program is managed by the Planetary Missions Program Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency's Planetary Science Division in Washington.
Read more about NASA's New Frontiers Program and missions at:
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.