Technology

NASA Finalists Selected For Upcoming New Frontier Mission

Space exploration is a hot topic. With the recent SpaceX launch, there’s a renewed interest in exploring our universe — especially considering the knowledge that outer space is now accessible by private companies. Governmental agencies are still the major player when it comes to space exploration, however, and a recent contest for a new space drone has resulted in two NASA finalists.

SpaceX Falcon Heavy Rocket NASA Finalists
Image source: Elon Musk/Twitter

The NASA finalists are under consideration for the next New Frontier mission, which will send the drone to either retrieve a sample from a previously visited comet, or to visit Saturn’s moon — Titan.

On Wednesday, the NASA finalists were announced. The winning drone will either be the Dragonfly Quadcopter or the Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return (CAESAR).

As expected from the name, CAESAR would be going on a sample run to a comet first explored by the European Space Agency, while Dragonfly, if selected, would make an ambitious journey to Titan.

The upcoming mission will be the space agency’s fourth New Frontiers mission, and what exactly the expedition will be will depend on the winner in the NASA finalists showdown.

In a recent press release, Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, praised the design and ambition of the two finalists.

“This is a giant leap forward in developing our next bold mission of science discovery…These are tantalizing investigations that seek to answer some of the biggest questions in our solar system today.”

Dragonfly

The first of the NASA finalists is Dragonfly. The dual quadcopter is a nuclear-powered device, and would be sent on an expedition to explore various sites on Titan. The technology in Dragonfly is designed to perform admirably in the moon’s atmosphere, allowing the drone to fly from site to site while sampling prebiotic chemistry on the surface. A quadcopter is ideal for Titan, considering that the atmosphere is far denser than our own, and with surface gravity just a seventh of that here on Earth. The communications aspect of Dragonfly is particularly ambitious, with the device relying on direct contact from the surface of Titan to relay results.

The equipment inside Dragonfly includes a mass spectrometer, a drill and sampling package, gamma-ray and neutron spectrometers, and a geophysics and meteorology package — a comprehensive kit for a comprehensive exploration of select sites on Titan.

CAESAR

The other contender of the NASA finalists is the Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return — CAESAR for short.

The destination of this spacecraft would be a previously explored comet that was initially visited by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission — 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The main objective of the mission would be to collect over 100 grams of volatile and non-volatile material from the comet for scientists here on earth, allowing researchers a closer look at a comet which we have limited information on.

It would be quite a while before CAESAR returns, with an expected landing on November 20, 2038, at the Utah Test and Training Range. Despite the long journey, the information collected will be more than worth it when it comes to uncovering more about 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Which of the NASA finalists is chosen will be a decision that is a long way off, with final mission selection occurring in July of 2019. Development will follow, with an expected launch of 2025. While the launch is more than a few years away, deciding between these two excellent NASA finalists will surely take some serious time and consideration.

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