A senior NASA official said on Monday October 5th that the agency could select two new robotic planetary science missions next year for launch in the early 2020s, and the finalists are a Venus orbiter and atmospheric probe, an observatory to search for killer space rocks, and two probes to visit unexplored types of asteroids.
NASA managers will judge the proposals on cost, technical readiness and scientific return, then pick one or two for full development as the next robotic probe in the space agency’s Discovery program, a series of focused, cost-constrained interplanetary missions.
NASA will give the five mission teams $3 million each for year-long studies to lay out detailed mission plans and reduce risks. The space agency said it could pick one or two of the finalists for full development by September 2016, with launches expected in 2020 or 2021.
The missions are:
- Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging (DAVINCI), a project to send an entry probe into the atmosphere of Venus
- The Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy mission (VERITAS), a Venus radar mapper
- Psyche, a mission to the solar system’s most massive metallic asteroid
- Near Earth Object Camera (NEOCam), an observatory to detect and study potentially hazardous asteroids and comets that could threaten Earth
- Lucy, a probe to tour multiple Trojan asteroids in orbital lockstep with Jupiter
Each mission must stay under a $450 million cost limit. The figure excludes the cost of a launch vehicle and mission operations.
Scientists want Discovery competitions to occur every two years, but recent flight opportunities under the program have only come every four to five years. NASA expects to have the budget to request proposals for another Discovery mission in 2017 — less than three years since the last solicitation — but that opportunity will be delayed if two missions win in this round, Green said.
The DAVINCI mission would use an parachute-equipped entry probe to make a 63-minute descent through Venus’ atmosphere, studying its composition and attempting to determine whether the cloud-shrouded world has active volcanoes.
Carrying a X-band radar, the VERITAS orbiter would circle Venus in a polar orbit, surveying the planet’s topography with “order of magnitude improvements in altimetry and imaging” over NASA’s Magellan radar mapper sent to Venus in 1989.
One of the finalists would send a spacecraft to Psyche, a nearly 150-mile-wide (240-kilometer) asteroid scientists believe is the leftover metallic core of a protoplanet from the ancient solar system. Psyche is a world unlike any ever studied up close. It is made almost entirely of nickel and iron, the same composition as Earth’s inner core.
NEOCam would be positioned at the gravitationally-stable L1 libration point a million miles from Earth in line with the sun. NEOCam’s infrared detectors would locate approximately two-thirds of the large asteroids that could eventually impact our planet, expanding the growing catalog of nearby objects deemed potentially hazardous to Earth.
The Lucy mission would be ready for launch in 2021 on an 11-year flight through the solar system, flying past five asteroids, including four so-called Trojan objects locked in orbits around the sun behind and ahead of Jupiter.