NASA has ramped up its next phase of space exploration by green lighting further development of two unmanned mission concepts. Scheduled to launch sometime in the mid-2020s, the proposed missions include the Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return (CAESAR) spacecraft, which is designed to bring back comet materials to Earth, and the Dragonfly dual quadcopter, which is designed to fly about in the atmosphere of Saturn's largest moon, Titan.
Chosen from 12 candidates submitted in April as part of a New Frontiers competition, the two missions will now receive additional funding until the end of next year. This will allow CAESAR's Cornell University developers and Dragonfly's John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) time to improve their concepts. In 2019, one of the two missions will be selected to go forward and perhaps become the space agency's fourth New Frontiers mission alongside New Horizons, Juno, and OSIRIS-REx.
The CAESAR mission is relatively straightforward. It's a followup to ESA's Rosetta mission, which paid an extended visit to the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko from 2014 to 2016 and made the first successful attempt to place a lander on a comet. It would launch in 2024 or 2025 and rendezvous with comet 67P.
Once there, it would touchdown, collect 100 g (3.5 oz) of regolith from its surface, separate the volatile compounds from the solids, then return the sample to Earth for analysis. The hope is that the comet will show the presence of organic molecules that comets might have brought to our planet in the distant past and sparked life.
Dragonfly is a more complicated mission to the Saturnian moon Titan, which is the largest moon in the Solar System and the only one with an atmosphere. Dragonfly would be the first flying planetary rover composed of a dual quadcopter powered by a radiothermal generator (RTG). Similar to the one used on the Curiosity Mars rover, the generator recharge the flyer during Titan's eight-day long night.
The idea is to study Titan's atmosphere and methane oceans by flying from point to point during the eight days of the moon's daylight with the sample areas tens or even hundred of kilometers apart over a two-year period. The hope is to gain a better understanding of the chemistry of a world where life could develop.
"This is a giant leap forward in developing our next bold mission of science discovery," says Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "These are tantalizing investigations that seek to answer some of the biggest questions in our solar system today."
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