2011/05/17

NASA narrows list of future planetary missions - Physics Today

As NASA grapples with more cost overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope and an ever-decreasing budget, planning for the next generation of cheaper and faster planetary missions through NASA's Discovery Program continues. NASA has selected three projects to receive $3 million each for preliminary design studies:

  • Geophysical Monitoring Station (GEMS) would study the structure and composition of the interior of Mars. The principal investigator is Bruce Banerdt of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.
  • Titan Mare Explorer (TiME) would provide the first direct exploration of an ocean environment beyond Earth by landing in, and floating on, a large methane–ethane sea on Saturn's moon Titan. Ellen Stofan of Proxemy Research Inc in Gaithersburg, Maryland, is the principal investigator, and Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, will manage the project.
  • Comet Hopper would study cometary evolution by landing on a comet multiple times and observing its changes as it interacts with the Sun. University of Maryland professor Jessica Sunshine is the principal investigator. She will be supported by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
  • "This is high science return at a price that's right," said Jim Green, director of NASA's planetary science division in Washington. "The selected studies clearly demonstrate a new era with missions that all touch their targets to perform unique and exciting science."

    Next year NASA will select one of the three projects to receive up to $425 million (excluding launch costs) for the spacecraft to be built and launched by 2016.

    Technology programs

    Along with the three mission projects, NASA also announced preliminary funding of several experimental technology demonstrators:

    • Primitive Material Explorer (PriME) would develop a mass spectrometer that would provide highly precise measurements of the chemical composition of a comet and explore the objects' role in delivering volatiles to Earth. Anita Cochran of the University of Texas at Austin is the principal investigator.
    • Whipple is designed to develop and validate a technique called blind occultation that could lead to the discovery of various celestial objects in the outer solar system. Charles Alcock of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is the principal investigator.
    • The NEOCam project would develop a telescope to study the origin and evolution of near-Earth objects and the present risk of Earth impact. It would generate a catalog of objects and accurate infrared measurements to provide a better understanding of small bodies that cross our planet's orbit. Amy Mainzer of JPL is the principal investigator.
    • Over the next several years, additional funding will depend on how those proposals progress in terms of flight readiness.

      Paul Guinnessy

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