Where Will NASA's Next Space Mission Take Us?
NASA's next space mission to another celestial body in our solar system before 2019 may be the moon, Venus or an asteroid.
The three proposed missions were the final candidates among eight submitted last year for the $650 million mission (excluding the launch vehicle cost), the space agency announced Tuesday. "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.
NASA will choose one of the following in mid-2011:
MoonRise: Lunar South Pole-Aitken Basin Sample Return Mission. A robotic lander would be placed in a broad basin near the moon's south pole to collect lunar samples where a very old and large impact event occurred. By determining the age of this specific event scientists may gain insight into how heavy bombardment affects the crust of early formed planets and how to put constraints on such causes, said Bradley Jolliff, research professor at Washington University in St. Louis and project principal investigator.
Jolliff said the specific impact event on the moon is important because it occurred when Earth had just developed an early crust and life was beginning to gain a foothold on the planet, a time perhaps 500 to 600 million years after the creation of our solar system.
"The moon does not have active weather and plate tectonics. . . the sort of processes that you have on Earth and so it records events that took place early in our solar system history," Jolliff said.
The Surface and Atmosphere Geochemical Explorer, or SAGE, mission to Venus. A probe would be released on the planet to collect meteorological, mineral and other data.
"The original Venus environment probably included water, maybe even oceans," said Larry Esposito, professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder and lead mission researcher. But due to uncontrolled warming, now the hot and cloudy planet is mainly composed of carbon dioxide and has a surface pressure nearly 100 times that of Earth.
"The basic idea is to learn how and why Venus went bad and then compare that to Earth," Esposito said.
The Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer Mission. The spacecraft Osiris-Rex, would rendezvous and orbit a primitive asteroid. Led by researchers at the University of Arizona in Tucson, the proposed mission would collect samples from the asteroid. The mission would help scientists further learn how our solar system formed and about the origin of complex molecules needed for life.
It would be the first time in space exploration history that a mission would return a pristine sample of a carbonaceous asteroid, according to the mission proposal team.
The Osiris-Rex mission would add approximately $100 million to the Arizona economy if selected as the next NASA space venture, said Michael Drake, director of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at UA and science leader for Osiris-Rex, in a statement.
The three teams will each initially receive approximately $3.3 million in 2010 to conduct a 12-month mission concept study before NASA decides the winner.
The final selection will become the third mission of NASA's New Frontiers program, which was created to further explore our solar system with medium-class spacecraft missions.
The program's previous missions were New Horizons and Juno. New Horizons launched in 2006, will fly by the Pluto-Charon system in 2015 and then target another object in the Kuiper Belt for study; Juno will launch in August 2011, orbit Jupiter from pole to pole for the first time and study the planet's atmosphere and interior.