NASA is about to announce the finalists of its next $1 billion space mission

ShutterstockAn artist’s depiction of the solar system.
  • NASA’s New Frontiers program is a competition for scientists to get their space mission funded.
  • The winner, to be selected in 2019, will get funding and a rocket launch that are valued at a combined $US1 billion.
  • On Wednesday, the space agency is revealing its top finalists.
  • The teams competing for the mission could look for signs of alien life at Enceladus, probe Venus, or chase asteroids.

Update: NASA’s selected two finalists: CAESAR, a probe to collect and return a sample of comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and Dragonfly, a helicopter-like drone that would explore Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Read our full report on the two proposed missions.

On Wednesday, NASA will unveil a handful of finalists competing for a billion-dollar space mission to explore the solar system.

Twelve teams of scientists submitted proposals to the contest, which is called New Frontiers-4 (since it’s the fourth such competition held by NASA). A few of those 12 teams – perhaps just one, two, or three – will each receive $US4 million next year to further develop and engineer their spacecraft concept.

The hope: Convince NASA by December 2018 that they’re worth $US850 million and a free rocket ride into the solar system, at a combined value of about $US1 billion.

Previous missions selected by New Frontiers include New Horizons, a nuclear-powered probe that flew by Pluto in 2015 and is now going deeper into the Kuiper Belt; OSIRIS-REx, a robot that’s flying out to meet asteroid Bennu and bring a sample of it back to Earth; and the Juno mission, which is looping around Jupiter, recording unprecedented data and breathtaking images of the planet.

The current list of 12 teams hasn’t been publicized by NASA, but the groups are allowed to speak up on their own. The missions that are publicly known span a few categories for which the space agency requested missions. They include missions to:

The moon

  • MoonRise – would bring back samples of the moon’s south pole


  • Venus In Situ Atmospheric and Geochemical Explorer (Visage) – a lander that would study and photograph the planet’s surface for a few hours
  • Venus In Situ Composition Investigations(Vici) – a two-lander mission to the planet’s surface
  • Venus Origins Explorer (Vox) – one robot would orbit and research the planet from above, while a second would drop through and study Venus’ atmosphere


  • Dragonfly – a helicopter-like robot that’s hop around through the thick atmosphere of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan
  • Enceladus Life Finder (Elf) – a mission to seek out signs of microbial life at Saturn’s icy, ocean-hiding moon Enceladus
  • Enceladus Life Signatures and Habitability(Elsah) – a proposal headed by an astrobiologist (little else is known)
  • Oceanus – a spacecraft dedicated to Titan that would orbit, map, and study the moon in unprecedented detail
  • Saturn Probe Interior and Atmosphere Explorer(Sprite) – a robot that would dive deep into the clouds of Saturn to study its air

And comets

  • Comet Nucleus Dust and Organics Return(Condor) – a probe that would sample scoops of Comet 67P and return them to Earth
  • Comet Rendezvous, Sample Acquisition, Investigation, and Return (Corsair) – a sample-return mission to comet 88P/Howell
  • Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return(Caesar) – a mission to collect and return a sample of comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko

NASA’s New Frontiers announcement at 2 p.m. ET, and we’re dialling in to ask questions about the finalists. Check back for an update shortly after then.

You can also listen in live below:

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