NASA robotic space mission finalists announced

The spacecraft Cassini is pictured above Saturn’s northern hemisphere prior to making one of its Grand Finale dives in a NASA illustration.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has selected two space projects as finalists in a competition for a future robotic space mission. One mission will retrieve samples from a comet and return them to Earth, while the other one will look for signs of life in Titan, one of Saturn’s moons.

The finalists were selected out of 12 proposals for NASA’s program called New Frontiers, which will see a robotic space mission get launched by the year 2025. NASA is expected to announce a winner in 2019.

The first project is called CAESAR, which is short for Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return. It is spearheaded by Steve Squyres at Cornell University. It involves sending a spacecraft to the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet and collecting samples from the heavenly body’s surface. The proposed space mission will retrieve at least 3.5 ounces of samples before returning back to Earth.

The goal of the mission is to observe the organic compounds found on the surface of the comet and understand how comets contributed to life on Earth.

“Comets are among the most scientifically important objects in the Solar System but they’re also among the most poorly understood,” said Squyres during a press conference. “I think it’s going to produce groundbreaking science for decades to come.”

The second finalist, called Dragonfly, is a landing craft that would be sent to Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. The spacecraft is designed like a helicopter and would be able to take advantage of the moon’s thick atmosphere to fly to various locations on the surface of Titan. The lander was built and tested at Johns Hopkins University, with the project being headed by planetary scientist Elizabeth Turtle.

“Titan is a unique ocean world,” said Turtle, during a NASA teleconference. “It has lakes and seas of liquid and methane, and rivers that flow across the surface.”

The proposed space mission is seeking to follow up on the groundbreaking probe that the spacecraft Cassini did on Saturn and its moons during a 13-year exploration.