The space agency today began accepting solicitations for these space exploration opportunities and will ultimately pick one of them to begin perusing in 2009 with a launch date targeted at 2018.
The solicitations and ultimate expedition are part of NASA's New Frontiers program, which has as its main objective to explore the solar system with medium-class spacecraft missions that will conduct high-quality, focused scientific investigations, NASA said. The first New Frontiers mission was selected in 2003 and will result in the launch of Juno, a Jupiter polar orbiter mission set to blast off in 2011.
Ultimately New Frontiers missions should launch on an average of one every 36 months, NASA said.
The description and list of potential new expeditions gleaned from NASA's announcement letter looks like this:
* The moon's South Pole - Aitken Basin Sample Return: The surface of the South Pole-Aitken basin, located on the Moon's far side southern polar region, is likely to contain some fraction of the mineralogy of the Moon's lower crust. Samples of these ancient materials are highly desirable to further understand the history of Earth's Moon. The return of at least 1 kg of sampled materials is expected, NASA said.
* Venus In Situ Explorer: Although the exploration of the surface and lower atmosphere of Venus provides a major technical challenge, the scientific rewards are major. Venus is Earth's sister planet, yet its tectonics, volcanism, surface-atmospheric processes, atmospheric dynamics, and chemistry are all remarkably different than on Earth, which has resulted in remarkably different end states for its surface crust and atmosphere. While returning physical samples of its surface and/or atmosphere may not be possible within the New Frontiers cost cap, innovative approaches might achieve program goals including better understanding the properties of Venus' atmosphere down to the surface through meteorological measurements, NASA said.
* Comet Surface Sample Return: Detailed study of comets promises the possibility of understanding the physical condition and constituents of the very early solar system, including the early history of water and the biogenic elements and the compounds containing them, NASA states. The choice of target comet is left to the proposer; however that choice of target must be justified in the proposal by how well it supports attaining the NEW Frontiers science objectives including ability to measure is the elemental, isotopic, organic, and mineralogical composition of comet, NASA said.
* Network Science: The interiors of Mercury, Venus, and Mars are poorly characterized and geophysical network missions to these bodies are needed to learn what is inside them, NASA said.
* Trojan/Centaur Reconnaissance: The Trojans, known to number well over a thousand, are aggregated along Jupiter's orbit, NASA said. These objects, initially discovered in the early 20th century are thought to be primitive leftovers from early solar system formation, possibly captured during giant planet formation. The Centaurs occupy positions further from the Sun. NASA said it wants to among many other things, determine the mass, size and density of a Trojan and a Centaur; but does not prescribe how the mission should actually be accomplished, NASA said.
* Jupiter Io Observer: Tidal heating, a process that can greatly expand the habitable zones in the solar system and elsewhere, is best studied at Io because it provides the most extreme example of this process in the solar system. Io provides the best place in the solar system, beyond Earth, to study volcanism, a process of fundamental importance on many planetary bodies. Among other things, the mission should help scientists understand the eruption mechanisms for Io's lavas and plumes and their implications for volcanic processes on Earth, NASA said.
* Ganymede Observer: The large icy satellites hold the key to answering many outstanding fundamental questions about the solar system, and Jupiter's largest moon Ganymede is of particular interest because of its unique internal magnetic field and its interaction with that of Jupiter. Ganymede is the only icy body in the solar system known to generate its own magnetic field, thus providing a unique window into Ganymede's interior and could shed light on the generation of internal magnetic fields elsewhere in the solar system. The objectives of this mission include a measurement of its magnetic fields and how they're generated, as well as how they interact with Jupiter's magnetic field, NASA said.
In related NASA news, the agency this week said it had successfully tested its deep space communications network modeled on the Internet. Specifically the space agency used its Disruption-Tolerant Networking, or DTN technology to send dozens of space images to and from a NASA's Epoxi spacecraft located about 20 million miles from Earth.
NASA's DSN is made up of myriad systems. It includes an international network of antennas that supports interplanetary spacecraft missions and radio and radar astronomy observations for the exploration of the solar system and the universe.
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