NASA targets Venus, asteroids with potential missions

NASA will pick one or two missions from five potential candidates


NASA this week picked five possible contenders for a relatively low-cost robotic mission to space.

The five candidates from a batch of 27 –include Venus, near-Earth object and asteroid operations – will ultimately be whittled down to one or two that will cost approximately $500 million, not including launch vehicle or post-launch operations, NASA stated.

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Each investigation team will receive $3 million to conduct concept design studies and analyses for NASA’s Discovery Program. After a detailed review and evaluation of each experiment, NASA will make the final selections by September 2016 for continued development leading up to launch possibly by 2020, NASA stated.

The mission concepts include:

  • Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging DAVINCI would study the chemical composition of Venus’ atmosphere during a 63-minute descent. It would answer scientific questions that have been considered high priorities for many years, such as whether there are volcanoes active today on the surface of Venus and how the surface interacts with the atmosphere of the planet. Lori Glaze of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is the principal investigator. Goddard would manage the project.
  • The Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy VERITAS would produce global, high-resolution topography and imaging of Venus’ surface and produce the first maps of deformation and global surface composition. Suzanne Smrekar of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California is the principal investigator. JPL would manage the project.
  • Psyche

This mission would explore the origin of planetary cores by studying the metallic asteroid Psyche. This asteroid is likely the survivor of a violent hit-and-run with another object that stripped off the outer, rocky layers of a protoplanet. Linda Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona is the principal investigator. JPL would manage the project.

  • Near Earth Object Camera

NEOCAM would discover ten times more near-Earth objects than all NEOs discovered to date. It would also begin to characterize them. Amy Mainzer of JPL is the principal investigator, and JPL would manage the project.

  • Lucy

This mission would perform the first reconnaissance of the Jupiter Trojan asteroids, objects thought to hold vital clues to deciphering the history of the solar system. Harold Levison of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado is the principal investigator. Goddard would manage the project.

NASA’s Discovery Program has funded 12 missions to date, including MESSENGER, Dawn, Stardust, Deep Impact, Genesis and GRAIL, and is currently completing development of InSight.

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The possible future mission selections coincide with some other future mission statements from NASA’s Chief Scientist Dr. Ellen Stofan at a congressional hearing this week.

“With future technology and instruments currently under development, we will explore the solar system and beyond, and could indeed --perhaps in as little as 10-20 years --discover some form of life, past or present,” Stofan said.

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Stofan talked of a number of future NASA activities including:

  • The President's Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 budget request supports the formulation and development of a mission to the Jovian moon Europa. We estimate that Europa has twice as much water as the Earth's oceans and that there is an interchange of materials between Europa's icy crust and its water oceans. Hubble has observed plumes at one of Europa's poles. A Europa mission could potentially, among other things, analyze Europa's water plumes to determine the composition of those oceans.
  • In 2017, NASA will be launching the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, (TESS), which will look for rocky planets near the habitable zones of the closest stars. With TESS' planets in hand, we will use the James Webb Space Telescope to analyze the kinds of molecules that such planets' atmospheres contain, such as water, oxygen, carbon dioxide and methane.
  • Perhaps even more interesting is the possibility that life could exist in the absence of liquid water. That's why scientists are interested in exploring some of the more unusual places in our solar system and beyond, such as Saturn's moon Titan, where it rains liquid methane and ethane. Could such an environment harbor life? We don't know yet.
  • In April NASA announced the formation of an initiative dedicated to the search for life on planets outside our solar system. The Nexus for Exoplanet System Science is an interdisciplinary effort that connects top research teams and provides a synthesized approach in the search for planets with the greatest potential for signs of life. This new network will help scientists communicate and coordinate their research, training and educational activities across disciplinary, organizational, divisional and geographic boundaries.

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