NASA knows it wants a new robotic mission to take off, but all the possibilities were so awesome it was almost impossible to decide what to send into space. Now we’re light-years closer to knowing what it could be.
After agonizing over twelve proposals based on one of six infinitely cool mission themes as part of its New Frontiers program—alien ocean worlds, probing Saturn, bringing a comet sample back to Earth, flying through Trojan asteroids, landing on Venus, or getting a lunar basin sample to study on the home planet—the space agency finally decided to move on with two concepts that could have come straight out of a sci-fi movie.
CAESAR (Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return) has its sights set on obtaining a sample from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and zooming it over to a lab for further investigation, because there are no microscopes in space. This asteroid was previously studied by ESO’s Rosetta spacecraft. Principal investigator Steve Squyers of Cornell University wants to continue the work done by Rosetta, which went to its kamikaze death smashing into the asteroid after staring at it for several years.
“The end date of the flight will really be the beginning,” said Squyres when the finalists were announced at NASA’s press conference yesterday. “The science will extend for decades after the sample comes back.”
Comets are a mashup of star remnants, interstellar clouds and cosmic leftovers from the Big Bang. Observing a sample in macro detail could tell us things we could have never imagined about the formation of Earth and the universe. It could even give us insight into the origins of life and whether we really are alone, because you never know what might have been frozen in comet ice for billions and billions of years.
Dragonfly is the space drone mission whose vision is using a dual-quadcopter lander to explore the ocean world of Saturn’s moon Titan. Except Titan’s oceans are unfathomable depths of liquid methane, its lakes could be erupting with a nitrogen gas. It waters which aren’t really water are also swirled with vinyl cyanide, which scientists believe could be behind the formation of cell membranes. Titan could be a primordial ooze of prebiotic chemistry similar to what was bubbling on Earth before life emerged. We just won’t know until we send a spacecraft out there.
So which one is going to launch? You’ll have to wait until next spring to find that out. Until then, you can keep our telescope on the two missions that NASA selected for technology development funds as prep for future competitions. ELSAH (Enceladus Life Signatures and Habitability) plunges into the other ocean world we’re all dying to search for aliens, and VICI (Venus In situ Composition Investigations) is burning to send a lander through toxic clouds and searing temperatures to explore the surface of Venus.
“This is a giant leap forward in developing our next bold mission of science discovery,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “These are tantalizing investigations that seek to answer some of the biggest questions in our solar system today.”
Just in case you didn’t get how big of a deal this is:
Yes, scientists geek out, too.