Finalists for a Future Mission to Explore the …

We’ve selected two finalists for a robotic mission that is planned to launch in the mid-2020s! Following a competitive peer review process, these two concepts were chosen from 12 proposals that were submitted in April under a New Frontiers program announcement opportunity.

What are they?

In no particular order…

CAESAR

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CAESAR, or the Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return mission seeks to return a sample from 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko – the comet that was successfully explored by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft – to determine its origin and history.

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This mission would acquire a sample from the nucleus of comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko and return it safely to Earth. 

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Comets are made up of materials from ancient stars, interstellar clouds and the birth of our solar system, so the CAESAR sample could reveal how these materials contributed to the early Earth, including the origins of the Earth’s oceans, and of life.

Dragonfly

A drone-like rotorcraft would be sent to explore the prebiotic chemistry and habitability of dozens of sites on Saturn’s moon Titan – one of the so-called ocean worlds in our solar system.

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Unique among these Ocean Worlds, Titan has a surface rich in organic compounds and diverse environments, including those where carbon and nitrogen have interacted with water and energy.

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Dragonfly would be a dual-quadcopter lander that would take advantage of the environment on Titan to fly to multiple locations, some hundreds of miles apart, to sample materials and determine surface composition to investigate Titan’s organic chemistry and habitability, monitor atmospheric and surface conditions, image landforms to investigate geological processes, and perform seismic studies.

What’s Next?

The CAESAR and Dragonfly missions will receive funding through the end of 2018 to further develop and mature the concepts. It is planned that from these, one investigation will be chosen in the spring of 2019 to continue into subsequent mission phases.

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That mission would be the fourth mission in the New Frontiers portfolio, which conducts principal investigator (PI)-led planetary science missions under a development cost cap of approximately $850 million. Its predecessors are the New Horizons mission to Pluto and a Kuiper Belt object, the Juno mission to Jupiter and OSIRIS-REx, which will rendezvous with and return a sample of the asteroid Bennu. 

Key Technologies

We also announced that two mission concepts were chosen to receive technology development funds to prepare them for future mission opportunities.

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The Enceladus Life Signatures and Habitability (ELSAH) mission concept will receive funds to enable life detection measurements by developing cost-effective techniques to limit spacecraft contamination on cost-capped missions.

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The Venus In situ Composition Investigations (VICI) mission concept will further develop the VEMCam instrument to operate under 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.

The call for these mission concepts occurred in April and was limited to six mission themes: comet surface sample return, lunar south pole-Aitken Basin sample return, ocean worlds, Saturn probe, Trojan asteroid tour and rendezvous and Venus insitu explorer.

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