NASA's next billion-dollar mission will either visit Saturn's moon Titan or bring back samples of a distant comet

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science InstituteSaturn’s fourth-largest moon, Dione, passing behind the ringed planet’s largest moon, Titan, in a view from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.
  • NASA has announced two finalists for its next New Frontiers mission.
  • One project, called Dragonfly, would head to Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.
  • The other, nicknamed Caesar, would fetch samples from the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet.
  • NASA said that it would select a winner in 2019 and that the mission would be launch-ready by 2025.

NASA on Wednesday announced two finalists for its next robotic mission to explore mysterious corners of our solar system.

The finalists came from 12 proposals for the mission, called New Frontiers-4. (It will be the fourth in the series of New Frontiers missions.)

NASA will choose a winner in 2019, granting it $US850 million and a free rocket ride into the solar system, at a combined value of about $US1 billion.

One of the finalists, named Dragonfly, is a lander that would head to Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. The other, nicknamed Caesar (full name Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return), would go to the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet and collect samples.

Each team now has about one year and $US4 million to finalise its concept.

Here’s a glimpse at what the Dragonfly mission – which would attempt to follow up on and advance the Cassini probe’s groundbreaking 13-year exploration of Saturn – might look like:

Dragonfly is a dual-quadcopter lander built and tested at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory. It would take advantage of the thick atmosphere of Saturn’s largest moon to fly to a variety of locations, some hundreds of miles apart.

“Titan is a unique ocean world,” Elizabeth Turtle, a planetary scientist leading the Dragonfly mission proposal, said during a NASA teleconference on Wednesday. “It has lakes and seas of liquid and methane, and rivers that flow across the surface.”

Titan lakes map saturn cassini nasa jpl psd lpiNASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/CornellA false-colour image of Titan’s Ligeia Mare lake of methane.

The radioisotope-powered lander would sample materials and determine surface composition to investigate Titan’s organic chemistry and habitability, as well as monitor atmospheric and surface conditions, capture images of landforms to investigate geological processes, and perform seismic studies.

Turtle said the probe would arrive on Titan in 2034 and radio data back to Earth as it hopped from location to location.

The other option, Caesar, would fly back to a comet that the European Space Agency explored in 2004 with its Rosetta mission.

The Caesar probe would grab a sample from the nucleus of Churyumov-Gerasimenko in hopes of learning about how those materials contributed to the early Earth, including its oceans and life.

“They’re the most primitive building blocks of planets,” said Steve Squyres, the Caesar mission leader, adding that comets carry volatile ices that aren’t found anywhere else in the solar system.

“They obtain materials that date from the very earliest moments of solar-system formation and even before,” Squyres said.

If picked, Squyres said, the spacecraft would collect at least a 100-gram sample of the comet to come back to Earth in capsules.

“The sample will arrive back on Earth on the 20th of November 2038 – so mark your calendars,” he said.

Caesar conceptNASAA rendering of the Caesar probe.

The spacecraft-manufacturing company Orbital ATK would manufacture the Caesar probe, which would use solar-electric propulsion.

Both missions would allow for a deeper exploration of fascinating corners of the solar system that we already know a bit about.

The three other New Frontiers missions are the New Horizons nuclear-powered probe that flew by Pluto in 2015 and is now going deeper into the Kuiper belt; Osiris-Rex, a robot flying out to meet the Bennu asteroid and bring a sample back to Earth in 2018; and Juno, which is looping around Jupiter to record unprecedented data and take breathtaking images.

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