NASA New Frontiers Is Either Heading to Saturn's Moon Titan or Chasing Down Comet 67P

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Dragonfly is a dual-quadcopter lander that would take advantage of the environment on Titan to fly to multiple locations, some hundreds of miles apart. NASA

NASA announced two finalists in the running for its future missions in the mid 2020s—a comet sample return mission and a dual-quadcopter that would search for potential landing sites on Saturn's largest moon, Titan. The two concepts under the New Frontiers program were chosen from 12 proposals submitted in April.

"This is a giant leap forward in developing our next bold mission of science discovery," Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a statement. "These are tantalizing investigations that seek to answer some of the biggest questions in our solar system today."

The comet sample return mission will seek out a comet, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, that was explored by the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft. The mission, called the Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return (CAESAR), will be led by Steve Squyres of Cornell University and managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

"Comets are among the most scientifically important objects in the solar system, but they're also among the most poorly understood," Squyres said during the news conference. "They're the most primitive building blocks of planets; they contain materials that date from the very earliest moments of solar system formation and even before. Comets were a source of water for the Earth's oceans, and critically they were a source of organic molecules that contributed to the origin of life."

The comet samples would be extracted from its nucleus—and the mission would ultimately return to Earth on November 20, 2038, reported Space.com

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A multi-media simulation showing the new planet discovered at La Silla's observatory, 24 April 2007 at European Southern Observatory (ESO)'s facility in Santiago. Getty

Dragonfly is the drone-like rotorcraft that will go to Saturn's moon Titan in order to explore the prebiotic chemistry and habitability of dozens of sites on this ocean world. Elizabeth Turtle from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory is the lead investigator on the mission.

"Dragonfly would spend most of its time on the ground, but by being a rotorcraft, we're able to fly to multiple sites tens to hundreds of kilometers apart to be able to make these measurements in different geologic settings," Turtle said during the news conference.

Titan is the second largest moon in our solar system. It's also the only moon in our solar system with an atmosphere thick with nitrogen and methane gases with an Earth-like cycle of liquids on its surface. Titan is so cold—290 degrees below zero Fahrenheit—that water is thick like lava and liquid methane flows through rivers and fills lakes to the brim.

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A NASA photo from Saturn's largest moon, Titan. Titan's atmosphere makes Saturn's largest moon look like a fuzzy orange ball in this natural color view from the Cassini spacecraft. NASA

CAESAR and Dragonfly will receive funding through the end of 2018 to develop the concepts, and by spring 2019, NASA will choose an investigation that will fly before the end of 2025, reported Space.com. The chosen mission will follow previous New Frontiers missions, including the New Horizons mission to Pluto, the Juno probe now orbiting Jupiter and an asteroid sample return mission.

Two other proposals were selected for technology development: Enceladus Life Signatures and Habitability (ELSAH) and Venus In situ Composition Investigations (VICI). ELSAH will receive funding to research cost-effective ways to limit spacecraft contamination, which could help to detect life on cost-capped missions, according to NASA. VICI will improve an element and mineralogy camera to operate in Venus's harsh environment.

NASA New Frontiers Is Either Heading to Saturn's Moon Titan or Chasing Down Comet 67P | Tech & Science