NASA’s New Frontiers Mission Candidates Narrowed Down To Two Finalists

The next New Frontiers mission will either have NASA gathering a sample from comet 67P or studying the chemistry of Saturn's moon Titan.

The next New Frontiers mission will either have NASA exploring comet 67P, or Saturn's moon Titan.
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The next New Frontiers mission will either have NASA gathering a sample from comet 67P or studying the chemistry of Saturn's moon Titan.

NASA announced the finalists for its fourth New Frontiers mission on Wednesday, naming two possible destinations to fly to in the coming decade — a comet previously studied by the European Space Agency, and one of Saturn’s many moons.

After evaluating 12 candidates for New Frontiers’ upcoming mission, NASA has narrowed things down to a possible attempt at gathering a sample from the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and a mission to explore different regions of Saturn’s moon Titan. The mission proposals were submitted in April and went through an “extensive and competitive” peer review before NASA announced the two finalists.

“This is a giant leap forward in developing our next bold mission of science discovery,” said NASA Science Mission Directorate associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen in a press release from the space agency.

“These are tantalizing investigations that seek to answer some of the biggest questions in our solar system today.”

The first finalist among NASA’s New Horizons mission candidates is known as the Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return (CAESAR) mission, which hopes to return a sample from 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, a comet that was first explored by the ESA’s Rosetta orbiter. As noted by Sky and Telescope, Rosetta was able to perform in-depth analysis on the comet, which should help the CAESAR team collect at least 100 grams of volatile and non-volatile material for analysis on Earth.

It won’t be another two decades or so before the mission is completed, should it be chosen, as the material is expected to arrive back on Earth on November 20, 2038, over the Utah Test and Training Range. If selected, this NASA New Horizons mission candidate will be managed by the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center, with Orbital ATK tasked to manufacture the spacecraft to be used in the mission.

The second candidate features NASA’s Dragonfly dual quadcopter drone, which would be sent to Saturn’s moon Titan to sample prebiotic chemistry and gauge potential habitability on the moon’s surface as it flies from one area to another. According to Sky and Telescope, Titan has an atmosphere four times denser than that of Earth’s and surface gravity that represents just a seventh of our planet’s. That makes it the “best place in the solar system to fly a quadcopter.”

Additionally, Dragonfly will rely on direct communications instead of using an orbiter, and will be powered by a small instrument known as a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG) that is fueled by the isotope plutonium-238. If chosen as NASA’s next New Frontiers mission, Dragonfly will launch sometime in 2025, and would likely arrive at Titan in 2034.

Apart from the two New Frontiers candidates, NASA announced that two other mission concepts will receive an injection of technology development funds to get them ready for future mission proposal reviews. The Enceladus Life Signatures and Habitability (ELSAH) concept will look into techniques to affordably reduce spacecraft contamination on lower budget missions, while the Venus In-Situ Composition Investigations (VICI) program centers on the continued development of the Venus Element and Mineralogy Camera, an instrument designed to survive the harsh conditions on the planet as it explores its mineralogy and rock composition.

As explained by Popular Science, NASA’s New Frontiers missions are considered “mid-range” projects centering around objects in our solar system, with budgets that are normally capped at $1 billion. This represents less than half the budget of projects such as the space agency’s Curiosity and Mars 2020 rovers. But even with less money allocated to New Frontiers missions, previous endeavors have seen NASA explore Pluto and Jupiter, via the New Horizons and Juno missions respectively, with another such mission, OSIRIS-REx, currently on track to gather samples from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu.