Unmanned missions to planets and moons and asteroids in our solar system have been some of NASA’s most successful efforts in recent years, with completed or on-going ventures to Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, the asteroid Bennu, our moon, Pluto, Mercury and bodies around them all. On deck are a funded mission to Europa, another to Mars and one to the unique metal asteroid 16 Psyche orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter.
We are now closer to adding another New Frontiers class destination to that list, and NASA announced this week that it will be to either Saturn’s moon Titan or to the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
After assessing 12 possible New Frontiers proposals, these two made the cut and will receive $4 million each to further advance their proposed science and technology. One of them will be selected in spring of 2019 for launch in the mid 2020s.
With the announcement, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate Thomas Zurbuchen described the upcoming choice as between two “tantalizing investigations that seek to answer some of the biggest questions in our solar system today.”
Those questions would be: How did water and other compounds essential for life arrive on Earth? Comets carry ancient samples of both, and so can potentially provide answers.
And with its large inventories of nitrogen, methane and other organic compounds, is Titan potentially habitable? Then there’s the added and very intriguing prospect of visiting the methane lakes of that frigid moon.
Both destinations selected have actually been visited before.
The European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission orbited the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet for two years and deployed a lander, which did touch down but sent back data for only intermittently for several days.
And the NASA’s Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn passed by Titan regularly during its decade exploring that system, and the ESA’s Huygens probe did land on Titan and sent back information for a short time.
So both Rosetta and Cassini-Huygens began the process of understanding these distant and potentially revelatory destinations, and now NASA is looking to take it further.… Read more