NASA Chooses Two Finalists for a New Space Mission
Space, despite being so empty, still has a lot to see. There's a lot to explore and learn from the universe, and only a relatively small amount of time and resources which can be dedicated to discovering all the secrets that distant planets hold.
It doesn't seem particularly fair that only a few well-funded organizations and agencies have all the fun, and as such, NASA launched an initiative to bring the stars a little closer to interested parties who lack the funds and equipment to do it themselves. The program is called New Frontiers, and it involves a competition in which participants submit proposals for possible future missions that NASA could undertake.
This scheme has been going for a while and has seen several missions launch into space, such as the Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter, or New Horizons near Pluto. But now, NASA has announced that a further two missions have been chosen as finalists, and that one of them will receive funding to make their work a reality.
The first of these missions is called Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return, or CAESAR for short (presumably the team picked a name before figuring out the acronym).
The mission, if selected, will involve sending a probe to scrape material samples off the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, in order to analyze whether the cosmic flotsam that the comet has picked up might have helped form the so-called "building blocks of life" - biological goop that could one day provide the fertile beginnings of simple life on a planet if the comet ever smashes into a habitable world.
The second mission that might receive funding is called Dragonfly, an equally cool name and New Frontiers contender. The Dragonfly mission would send a dual-quadcopter probe to Titan, one of Saturn's moons, in order to test the local terrain and environment, learning more about whether or not the moon might be habitable, and, possibly, whether or not life exists in some form on its surface.
These missions aren't meant to be the really big stuff - nobody will be heading off to Proxima-b in the neighboring galaxy - but rather mid-sized projects that would be impossible for most scientists around the world, but which NASA can handle more easily. With a budget of around one billion dollars, members of the scientific community have been submitting proposals based on the kinds of research that feels the most pressing to help open up new avenues of discovery.
But these are still both ambitious projects, and would see years of work going into allowing them to happen. As for which mission will be chosen, there's a long waiting process now as NASA weighs up the benefits, challenges, and potential for discovery that each project holds.
It'll take until July of 2019 for NASA to choose a final winner for this round of the New Frontiers project, as which point, either CAESAR or Dragonfly will begin preparations to blast off into space.