In April, NASA received 12 proposals for a future New Frontiers mission to be launched in the 2020s. Out of those 12, two finalists have been selected. One proposed mission will send a flying lander to the surface of Saturn’s moon, Titan. The other will send a spacecraft on a sample return mission to a comet. Both missions will receive funding to continue developing their proposals and NASA will make a decision on which one will fly in 2019.
Dragonfly on Titan
The Titan lander mission has been dubbed “Dragonfly” and will feature an eight-rotored lander capable of flying in Titan’s hazy atmosphere. Titan has previously been mapped by the Cassini probe and studied by the Huygens lander. The Cassini-Huygens mission confirmed that there are hydrocarbons, including lakes of methane and ethane. Dragonfly will be capable of performing more in-depth tests on the progress of prebiotic chemistry. If this mission is selected to fly, scientists involved in the project like the versatility of being able to investigate multiple sites with fewer of the limitations of a lander or a rover like Curiosity.
Principle investigator Elizabeth Turtle said of the proposed Dragonfly mission, “Dragonfly would spend most of its time on the ground, but by being a rotorcraft, we’re able to fly to multiple sites tens to hundreds of kilometers apart to be able to make these measurements in different geologic settings.”
CAESAR Sample Return Mission
If the Comet Astrobiology Exploration SAmple Return (CAESAR) is selected, it will take a 100-gram core sample of the 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet and return it to Earth. This comet had previously been visited by ESA’s Rosetta mission. The contents of the sample will be seperated into two chambers, one for the volatile ices and the other for non-volatile materials. An ablative heat shield will protect the sample from the heat of reentry as it returns to Earth.
“Comets are among the most scientifically important objects in the solar system, but they’re also among the most poorly understood,” Principal Investigator Steve Squyres said of the mission. However, they can improve the odds of success by communicating to engineers what they do know: “We’re able to say to our engineers, OK, here’s the size-frequency distribution of the particles on the surface, here’s how strong the surface is; we can design for specific conditions that we know to exist.”
The mission that is chosen in 2019 will be launched by the end of 2025. Even though only these two projects were shortlisted, NASA has indicated willingness to develop some of the also-rans for possible future consideration because they simply had some unaddressed technical issues. One project called Enceladus Life Signatures and Habitability, for instance, could also fly to Saturn and study Enceladus for habitable conditions and signs of life.
“The New Frontiers program is really the premiere program for our principal investigators, and indeed it’s one of the most difficult programs to be selected for — we fly only about two of these types of missions per decade,” Jim Green, director of the planetary science division at NASA headquarters said during the news conference announcing the selection. “These are tremendously exciting missions.”