Where To Next for NASA’s Solar System Exploration?

Article written: 29 Dec , 2009
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015

Where is NASA going next to probe our solar system? The space agency announced today they have selected three proposals as candidates for the agency’s next space venture to another celestial body in our solar system. The proposed missions would probe the atmosphere composition and crust of Venus; return a piece of a near-Earth asteroid for analysis; or drop a robotic lander into a basin at the moon’s south pole to return lunar rocks back to Earth for study. All three sound exciting!

Here are the finalists:

Surface and Atmosphere Geochemical Explorer, or SAGE, mission to Venus would release a probe to descend through the planet’s atmosphere. During descent, instruments would conduct extensive measurements of the atmosphere’s composition and obtain meteorological data. The probe then would land on the surface of Venus, where its abrading tool would expose both a weathered and a pristine surface area to measure its composition and mineralogy. Scientists hope to understand the origin of Venus and why it is so different from Earth. Larry Esposito of the University of Colorado in Boulder, is the principal investigator.

Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer spacecraft, called Osiris-Rex, would rendezvous and orbit a primitive asteroid. After extensive measurements, instruments would collect more than two ounces of material from the asteriod’s surface for return to Earth. The returned samples would help scientists better undertand and answer long-held questions about the formation of our solar system and the origin of complex molecules necessary for life. Michael Drake, of the University of Arizona in Tucson, is the principal investigator.

MoonRise: Lunar South Pole-Aitken Basin Sample Return Mission would place a lander in a broad basin near the moon’s south pole and return approximately two pounds of lunar materials for study. This region of the lunar surface is believed to harbor rocks excavated from the moon’s mantle. The samples would provide new insight into the early history of the Earth-moon system. Bradley Jolliff, of Washington University in St. Louis, is the principal investigator.

The final project will be selected in mid-2011, and for now, the three finalists will receive approximately $3.3 million in 2010 to conduct a 12-month mission concept study that focuses on implementation feasibility, cost, management and technical plans. Studies also will include plans for educational outreach and small business opportunities.

The selected mission must be ready for launch no later than Dec. 30, 2018. Mission cost, excluding the launch vehicle, is limited to $650 million.

“These are projects that inspire and excite young scientists, engineers and the public,” said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “These three proposals provide the best science value among eight submitted to NASA this year.”

The final selection will become the third mission in the program. New Horizons, launched in 2006, will fly by the Pluto-Charon system in 2015 then target another Kuiper Belt object for study. The second mission, called Juno, is designed to orbit Jupiter from pole to pole for the first time, conducting an in-depth study of the giant planet’s atmosphere and interior. It is slated for launch in August 2011.

Visit the New Frontiers program site for more information.

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8 Responses

  1. Manu says

    $650 million apiece, and we can have only one. That’s 1/200 ISS, 1/50 Ares I. Each of these missions would bring back so many times more data than the manned program though.
    Makes me sad.

  2. Nexus says

    My vote is for the near Earth asteroid mission.

  3. Assuming NASA really wants to return to the Moon then Project Moonrise must come first. Before a manned mission is finalised NASA must have a good idea as to the amount of water available.

    The Moon has a diameter of 2160 miles, a semi circumference of about 3400 miles which means that the location of any Moon Base has to be chosen with care to avoid long walks to fetch water. Assuming there is a suitable supply at the poles.

  4. SteveZodiac says

    Venus? it’s totally inhospitable and uninhabitable, the craft will probably melt or dissolve almost immediately so why go there unless you intend to terraform it? The NEO mission will be good science and also give good experience for reaching threatening objects but it should be to the asteroid belt to find exploitable resources to bring in the terabuck investments needed for serious space-faring. I therefore vote for the lunar survey as achieving the most towards actually getting back out there.

  5. Spoodle58 says

    Humanity is engaged in searching for Earth like planets like a bunch of madmen these days when one is sitting right next to them. Yes Venus.

    Near Earth like in mass, its has an atmosphere, near enough to a habitable zone around its star. Sure its hot as hell and pressure at the surface is 90 bars. But out of the 400 plus planets including our our system that we know of Venus along with Mars and Titan are the most Earth like we know.

    NASA hasn’t done a lander mission there, and the USSR landers where back in the 70’s.

    It would be wise to add a balloon type probe to this mission to do a prolonged study of the the atmosphere. Perhaps a possible place for life? Who knows but it would be great.

  6. Dave Finton says

    Venus, as conveniently located as it is, makes for a lousy exploration target (as discovered by the Soviets in the 70’s). A land probe has little chance of reaching the surface because of the insane temperatures and atmospheric pressures. On top of that the probe(s?) that did manage to land and take pictures successfully all died within minutes of landing. Even if a very tough probe made out of pure titanium were made, any instruments on it would have to be very heavily shielded (which would be bad since that would definitely limit their abilities to, you know, measure stuff).

    As for life (even the possibility of life as we *don’t* know it), I’m gonna say it isn’t happening over there. The planet’s surface is very young, meaning that the crust undergoes regular upheavals. It’s just too chaotic to support complex chemical reactions that resemble anything we could call life.

    So, I’m going to say, personally speaking, forget Venus. An asteroid mission would be cool, though.

  7. Silver Thread says

    Kinda surprised Europa and Titan didn’t rate this list.

  8. rudeyd says

    We should be concentrating only on our goals of the Moon first (as a starting / testing stage) and then Mars. We should already be there so lets get caught up! Look what we accomplished in the 60’s when we were FOCUSED on a single goal…..

    If we are going to send life seeking probes then let’s concentrate on the truly possible places like the moons of Jupiter. Jupiter is a relatively fast trip and we know what we are getting into basically, so let’s expand on the knowledge gained from that trip. There is a dozen worth while adventures we can get from Jupiter and hold onto the public attention the entire time. We can’t afford to loose the public interest for a single moment…. EVER!. They only have the attention span of a gnat, so the trips should be as often as possible and still maintain maximum true science benefits.

    Why do people continue to bring up Venus??? Venus is a cool planet, but the only thing we will ever get from a visit is a headache from the wallet drain! That is a waste of precious budget funds and time. We would be better off visiting Uranus or Neptune to try and figure out how they migrated in the early Solar System. Venus is hot enough to melt lead, blah blah blah. We’ve known that for 45 years. Russia got a few cool pics back in the day. Good enough – zero life there!

    C’mon kids….Let’s move on.

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