NASA to Evaluate 4 Potential Missions That Could Explore Some of the Solar System's Greatest Mysteries

NASA is evaluating four new concept ideas for potential missions that could one day explore some of the mysteries of the solar system.

The concepts were chosen as part of the agency's Discovery Program—established in 1992—which invites scientists and engineers to propose missions that can deepen our understanding of our solar system.

Currently, it is not clear which of the missions will be approved. To find out, we will have to wait until next year when a maximum of two selections will be made. For now, the research groups behind each of the ideas will be given $3 million to develop their concepts.

"These selected missions have the potential to transform our understanding of some of the solar system's most active and complex worlds," Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement. "Exploring any one of these celestial bodies will help unlock the secrets of how it, and others like it, came to be in the cosmos."

Below are the four proposals that NASA has selected:

DAVINCI+ (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging Plus)

This concept seeks to learn more about Venus, delving into the origin of its atmosphere while also investigating whether the planet ever hosted an ocean. The proposed spacecraft for the mission will be sent into the blazing heat of Venus's atmosphere—protected by a specially designed descent sphere—to take measurements of its composition all the way down to the planet's surface. These findings could shed new light on the formation of rocky planets in the universe.

Io Volcano Observer (IVO)

This mission is focused on Jupiter's moon Io—the fourth-largest moon in the solar system and its most volcanically active world. By conducting close-up flybys, IVO aims to shed light on how the moon is affected by Jupiter's powerful gravitational forces, while also exploring how magma is generated on the world. It is not clear whether the planet contains an ocean of magma beneath its surface.

solar system
An artist's illustration of the solar system. NASA


Triton is the biggest natural satellite of Neptune, and a particularly intriguing world being the only large moon in the solar system that orbits in the opposite direction to its host planet—what's known as a retrograde orbit. This moon is the focus of the proposed TRIDENT mission, which will map the moon, identify geological processes taking place on its surface, and uncover clues about the potential existence of a subsurface ocean. Triton's surface is highly active and potentially home to erupting plumes that can generate an atmosphere. Overall the mission—which would involve a single flyby—could help scientists understand how the conditions for habitability arise.

VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy)

This mission aims to shed light on the geology of Venus, which scientists know relatively little about. In the proposal, a spacecraft will map the planet's surface, creating a 3D picture of its topography, which will help to understand whether Venus has active volcanism, among other features.