NASA's future mission shortlist targets Venus, asteroids and near-Earth objects
NASA has announced theselection of five conceptual planetary exploration missions forfurther study ahead of a potential launch date of 2020. Selected under NASA's Discovery Program, the would bemissions include the exploration of Venus and asteroids, as well as large scale analysis of near-Earth objects.
Since its advent, theagency and its partners have made giant leaps forward in planetary exploration. Spacecraft such as Cassini have undertaken long termobservation campaigns, delving into the nature of mysteriousplanetary bodies, while more recently New Horizons flyby of the dwarf planet Pluto has sparked a tidal wave of publicinterest in the NASA's efforts.
The Discovery Programis looking ahead to the next generation of explorers. Two of thepotential missions, the Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noblegases, 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 Lucymissions would revolve around a study of asteroids, while the Near Earth Object Camera (NEOCam) would perform themost comprehensive detection and characterization of near-Earthobjects (NEOs) to date.
Of the two Venus basedmissions, the VERITAS orbiter would seek to capture globalhigh-resolution topographical images of the tortured planet, whilealso imaging its surface to create a map of surface deformation andcomposition.
DAVINCI meanwhile would take a more up close andpersonal approach by plunging into Venus'toxic atmosphere. Any probe dropped into the atmosphere of Venus willencounter the same trial as that faced by ESA's Huygens probe when itdescended into the murky depths of Titan's atmosphere in 2005 – abrutal race against the clock to collect and transmit as much data aspossible before it is overwhelmed by hostile atmospheric conditions.
During what ispredicted to be a 63 minute descent, the DAVINCI probe would run thesame gauntlet, studying the atmosphere of the planet and how itinteracts with the surface, as well as attempting to answer thequestion as to whether there are still active volcanoes on theplanet's surface.
Lucy, a mission notentirely unlike ESA's Rosetta endeavor, would focus onunlocking the history of our solar system through the study ofasteroids. Specifically, this mission would focus on Jupiter Trojanasteroids, which hold an orbit around the enigmatic gas giant. Theserelatively small celestial bodies act as a time capsule for materialsdating back to the formation of our solar system, allowing us aglimpse into the ancient past.
Another of theshortlisted missions, designated Psyche, would examine an asteroid ofthe same name which is believed to have struck and stripped away theouter layers of a protoplanet. By examining the comet, it is hopedthat we may gain an insight into the origins of planetary cores.
Finally, the Near EarthObject Camera (NEOCam) mission would utilize the capabilities of thestate of the art sensor known as the NEOCam chip, to detect andcategorize ten times more NEOs than all such bodies discovered todate. The first of its kind, NEOCam is a megapixel sensor capable ofdetecting infrared wavelengths in deep space without the need forrefrigerators or cryogens to cool the equipment.
Each of the selectedinvestigations will receive US$3 million for further design studies andanalysis, with the agency expecting to make its final missionselections by September 2016. Confirmed missions will then work to anearliest launch date of 2020, with a development budget of $500million.
"The selectedinvestigations have the potential to reveal much about the formationof our solar system and its dynamic processes," states JohnGrunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator for the agency'sScience Mission Directorate, Washington. "Dynamic and excitingmissions like these hold promise to unravel the mysteries of oursolar system and inspire future generations of explorers. It’s anincredible time for science, and NASA is leading the way."