NASA's future mission shortlist targets Venus, asteroids and near-Earth objects

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Artists concept of the Psyche spacecraft orbiting its target asteroid(Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

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NASA has announced the selection of five conceptual planetary exploration missions for further study ahead of a potential launch date of 2020. Selected under NASA's Discovery Program, the would be missions include the exploration of Venus and asteroids, as well as large scale analysis of near-Earth objects.

Since its advent, the agency and its partners have made giant leaps forward in planetary exploration. Spacecraft such as Cassini have undertaken long term observation campaigns, delving into the nature of mysterious planetary bodies, while more recently New Horizons flyby of the dwarf planet Pluto has sparked a tidal wave of public interest in the NASA's efforts.

The Discovery Program is looking ahead to the next generation of explorers. Two of the potential missions, the Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging (DAVINCI) and the Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy mission (VERITAS), would focus their efforts on Venus.

The Psyche and Lucy missions would revolve around a study of asteroids, while the Near Earth Object Camera (NEOCam) would perform the most comprehensive detection and characterization of near-Earth objects (NEOs) to date.

Artists impression of the VERITAS spacecraft in orbit around Venus(Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Of the two Venus based missions, the VERITAS orbiter would seek to capture global high-resolution topographical images of the tortured planet, while also imaging its surface to create a map of surface deformation and composition.

DAVINCI meanwhile would take a more up close and personal approach by plunging into Venus' toxic atmosphere. Any probe dropped into the atmosphere of Venus will encounter the same trial as that faced by ESA's Huygens probe when it descended into the murky depths of Titan's atmosphere in 2005 – a brutal race against the clock to collect and transmit as much data as possible before it is overwhelmed by hostile atmospheric conditions.

During what is predicted to be a 63 minute descent, the DAVINCI probe would run the same gauntlet, studying the atmosphere of the planet and how it interacts with the surface, as well as attempting to answer the question as to whether there are still active volcanoes on the planet's surface.

Lucy, a mission not entirely unlike ESA's Rosetta endeavor, would focus on unlocking the history of our solar system through the study of asteroids. Specifically, this mission would focus on Jupiter Trojan asteroids, which hold an orbit around the enigmatic gas giant. These relatively small celestial bodies act as a time capsule for materials dating back to the formation of our solar system, allowing us a glimpse into the ancient past.

Artists concept of the NEOCam spacecraft in orbit(Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Another of the shortlisted missions, designated Psyche, would examine an asteroid of the same name which is believed to have struck and stripped away the outer layers of a protoplanet. By examining the comet, it is hoped that we may gain an insight into the origins of planetary cores.

Finally, the Near Earth Object Camera (NEOCam) mission would utilize the capabilities of the state of the art sensor known as the NEOCam chip, to detect and categorize ten times more NEOs than all such bodies discovered to date. The first of its kind, NEOCam is a megapixel sensor capable of detecting infrared wavelengths in deep space without the need for refrigerators or cryogens to cool the equipment.

Each of the selected investigations will receive US$3 million for further design studies and analysis, with the agency expecting to make its final mission selections by September 2016. Confirmed missions will then work to an earliest launch date of 2020, with a development budget of $500 million.

"The selected investigations have the potential to reveal much about the formation of our solar system and its dynamic processes," states John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator for the agency's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. "Dynamic and exciting missions like these hold promise to unravel the mysteries of our solar system and inspire future generations of explorers. It’s an incredible time for science, and NASA is leading the way."

Source: NASA

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