NASA selects finalists for next New Frontiers mission
Choosing from a field of twelve proposals, NASA has recently whittled the group down to two finalists for the agency’s next New Frontiers mission. Receiving the nod to receive additional funding and study in 2018 were missions to Saturn’s moon Titan and the recent European Space Agency (ESA) target, Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.
“This is a giant leap forward in developing our next bold mission of science discovery,” noted Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a release issued by the agency.
Why rove when you can fly?
One of the two finalists is a flying robotic explorer for Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Normally, surface explorers would be stationary landers or slow-moving rovers that will remain within tens of miles (kilometers) of their touchdown sites.
Titan, however, is unique in the Solar System – it is the only moon known to have a dense atmosphere. With a surface pressure 45 percent greater than Earth’s, the Saturnian satellite is well-suited for exploration by a flying vehicle.
To exploit this environmental condition, Elizabeth Turtle at the Applied Physics Lab (APL) at Johns Hopkins University proposed Dragonfly. The explorer is a dual-quadcopter designed to take samples from various locations, perhaps up to hundreds of miles (kilometers) apart, while also investigating Titan’s chemistry and atmospheric conditions.
“Titan is a fascinating ocean world,” stated Turtle, principal investigator for Dragonfly, in a press release issued by the lab. “It’s the only moon in the Solar System with a dense atmosphere, weather, clouds, rain, and liquid lakes and seas – and those liquids are ethane and methane.”
Though Titan has been studied extensively by the recently ended Cassini-Huygens mission – both from the Cassini spacecraft and the Huygens lander – Dragonfly would expand the information we have on the moon by being able to explore disparate locations on the satellite’s surface.
Standing on the shoulders of Rosetta
Joining Dragonfly as a finalist is the Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return (CAESAR) mission. Like its Titan-aimed competitor, CAESAR will also study a recently visited target. Ending in 2016, ESA’s Rosetta mission spent two years exploring Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.
The proposal, led by Cornell University’s Steve Squyres, aims to return samples from the comet. Already armed with volumes of data from the ESA mission, Squyres notes that retrieving both volatile and non-volatile samples from 67P will expand our understanding of the Solar System and lead to years of discovery.
“The end date of the flight will really be the beginning,” said the Professor of Physical Sciences, in a press release issued by the university. “The science will extend for decades after the sample comes back.”
Mission concepts receive funding
Beyond selecting the two finalists, NASA also announced two mission concepts that would receive additional funding.
Directed for further study and development were the Enceladus Life Signatures and Habitability (ELSAH) and Venus In-situ Composition Investigations (VICI) concepts.
ELSAH will focus on developing economical techniques to mitigate spacecraft contamination in order to support life-detecting measurements on missions with capped budgets. VICI, meanwhile, will develop a mineralogy camera suited to operation in the harsh Venusian environment.
As for the selectee for the fourth New Frontiers mission, NASA intends to make its choice in the spring of 2019. Until then, both contenders will hone their proposals in hopes of joining the New Horizons, Juno, and OSIRIS-REx as New Frontiers programs.
“These are tantalizing investigations that seek to answer some of the biggest questions in our Solar System today,” concluded Zurbuchen.
Video courtesy of Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.