Where should we explore next in the Solar System? That’s what NASA is deciding at the moment, with Titan, Enceladus, Venus and more up for consideration.
This is part of NASA’s New Frontiers program, which will allocate up to $1 billion to one mission. NASA has received 12 proposals for missions, with a selection expected in 2019, and a launch in 2024.
“New Frontiers is about answering the biggest questions in our Solar System today, building on previous missions to continue to push the frontiers of exploration,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, in a statement.
“We’re looking forward to reviewing these exciting investigations and moving forward with our next bold mission of discovery.”
There have been three previous New Frontiers missions. These are the New Horizons Mission to Pluto (launched in 2006), the Juno mission to Jupiter (launched in 2011), and the OSIRIS-REx mission (launched in 2016) that is currently on its way to the asteroid Bennu.
This time around, there are six mission themes being considered. Two of these are based around sample returns to either a comet or the south pole of the Moon. Returning samples to Earth is extremely important for scientific analysis. Other themes are a probe to Saturn, a mission to Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids, or a spacecraft to visit and possibly land on Venus.
Perhaps most enticingly though, NASA also asked for ideas about missions to ocean worlds, specifically Titan and Enceladus. We’ve already got a mission going to Europa in the 2020s, called the Europa Clipper, but all three look like promising locations for habitability thanks to their underground oceans. A mission to one of these worlds could help us answer whether we are alone in the Solar System or not.
While NASA does not release details about individual mission proposals, Popular Mechanics reported that three of them were missions to Saturn. One would dive into its atmosphere, another would possibly land on Titan, and the third would sample the jets of water spewing from Enceladus.
Each mission is no doubt exciting in its own right. It's a shame we can't do them all.