NASA New Frontiers Finalists: Titan Quadcopter, Comet Sample Return Mission

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NASA solicited proposals for new robotic missions as part of its New Frontiers exploration program, and it got a dozen of them this past April. Now, the agency has whittled the list down to two contenders. One mission seeks to explore the second largest moon in the solar system, and the other would grab a piece of a comet and return it to Earth.

New Frontiers is NASA’s current robotic exploration program, emphasizing new types of exploration and new locations in the solar system. There are already three missions in the New Frontiers program, and you’re probably familiar with them. There’s New Horizons, which successfully visited Pluto and is now on course to another Kuiper Belt object. Then there’s the Juno probe, which is currently orbiting Jupiter. Finally, there’s the recently launched OSIRIS-REx mission, on route to the asteroid Bennu to collect a sample and return it to Earth. The two finalist projects have been granted funding to continue development, and one of them will become the next New Frontiers mission with a launch date around 2025.

The Dragonfly mission seeks to study Saturn’s moon Titan like never before. It would send an eight-rotor flying robot (above) to the moon in order to sample its complex chemistry and take a look at those hydrocarbon lakes. Titan was mapped by the Cassini probe, and the Huygens lander reached the surface. However, to truly understand Titan, we need to be mobile. Since Titan is the only body in the solar system other than Earth with a thick atmosphere, a flying robot is ideal.

Assuming the Dragonfly is selected as the next New Frontiers mission to launch in 2025, it would get to Titan around 2034. Designers plan to use a nuclear generator like the one that powers the Curiosity rover, so it could buzz around on Titan for several years before failing. The mission is led by APL in partnership with Penn State University.

The other possible New Frontiers mission is similar to OSIRIS-Rex. The Comet Astrobiology Exploration SAmple Return (CAESAR) would set out for a comet and return a sample of its surface to Earth for study. The designers of CAESAR are targeting the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which was previously visited by the ESA’s Rosetta mission.

The probe would use a similar collection arm mechanism to the one on OSIRIS-REx to collect pieces of the comet, storing them in insulated compartments that will protect them from the heat of reentry. After launching in 2025, CAESAR would arrive back home in 2038 with both volatile and nonvolatile samples from the comet. This mission would be built by Orbital ATK.

NASA will decide which of these two missions becomes the next New Frontiers initiative in 2019.

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