June 21, 2024
1 Solar System Way, Planet Earth, USA
Solar System

Countdown to next selection for NASA's Discovery mission

If NASA managers stick to their schedule, we'll know sometime this month what NASA's next planetary mission will be. This will end a two-year process in which 27 teams of scientists and engineers proposed missions for the agency's Discovery program, followed by selection from the field to five finalists. Out of the process should come the selection of one (and if the gods smile, two) missions to be launched in the early 2020s to study Venus or asteroids.

The Discovery program funds NASA's low-cost planetary missions (typically $600 million to $700 million for all costs) to allow for more frequent missions. Nine missions They have successfully flown through this program to solar system destinations as diverse as Mercury, our moon, Mars, several comets, and several asteroids. (For those who notice that the next mission will be the 13thth selection, a previous mission failed, another is the Kepler telescope that observes planets around other stars, and one is still in development).
The finalists of the Discovery mission.
The text in red refers to advanced technologies that different teams propose for flying. Credit: NASA

In the first round of this competition, agency officials evaluated proposals on how compelling their science would be and on their engineering feasibility and costs. This led to the selection of the five finalists:

He mission lucia It would carry out flybys of several of the Trojan asteroids that share Jupiter's orbit. These compositionally diverse bodies are believed to be debris delivered to their current locations from across the early outer solar system.
Exploring these worlds would help us better understand the variety of orbital conditions and dynamics in the early solar system.
He Near-Earth Object Camera (NEOCam) The mission would use a space telescope to discover new asteroids (especially those with orbits close to Earth's) and characterize a multitude of known asteroids. The results would be a massive database that could be exploited to explore the range of sizes, compositions and orbital dynamics of asteroids to study these worlds as entire populations.
He psyche mission It would orbit the asteroid of the same name, which is the largest metallic world in the solar system. This body may be the exposed remnant center of a protoplanet, in which case it is our only chance to explore the core of a world directly. Or Psyche may be an asteroid that formed near the early sun before being thrown into the main asteroid belt.
(In a previous postI provided more detailed summaries of the objectives of each of these proposed missions).

The teams that proposed these finalists have had approximately a year to refine their proposals. The evaluation of final proposals is reputed to be a tough and rigorous examination that examines every detail for flaws. Could all scientific objectives be achieved? Are there flaws in the design or proposed testing procedures? Could the mission be implemented within the budget? Do all key personnel proposed for the mission have the experience to execute the tasks assigned to them?

The final evaluations are given to NASA Associate Administrator for Science Thomas Zurbuchen, who will make the final decision on which mission to fly. Assuming more than one proposal survives technical evaluation, it may include factors such as your judgment about which scientific questions are most compelling or which mission would best balance the overall planetary program (for example, NASA has not launched a mission to Venus since late the 1980s, but has since launched three asteroid missions).

Dr. Zurbuchen may announce two missions to fly. When the shortlist of proposals was announced, NASA stated that a second mission could be selected if more than one passed the final review process and sufficient funding was expected in future budgets. Choosing two missions from a single competition would make it easier for NASA to meet its goal of four or five Discovery launches per decade. (The competitions are expensive and time-consuming for both the planetary community and NASA.) As recently as this summer, the head of NASA's planetary science division said his goal was to defend two selections, but statements from other NASA administrators have sounded more cautious.

At least two recent events weigh, in my opinion, against a second selection. First, the Discovery mission in development, the Mars InSight geophysical station, experienced development problems and will need an additional $154 million to prepare for launch. Much of that money may come from the Discovery program budget, which will reduce the funds available for future missions. Second, the new president-elect promises massive tax cuts and massive new spending on infrastructure. Dealing with that program can lead to serious budget cuts in other parts of the federal budget, even at NASA. Budgetary caution may be the smart move.
While NASA administrators will probably have found it difficult to select from a field of excellent candidates, among space enthusiasts there may be a clear favorite. During the past year, my blog site has published a poll asking readers to select their personal favorites.
VERITAS was the clear favorite (48% of the votes), followed by Psyche (19%), DAVINCI (14%), Lucy (9%) and NEOCAM (7%). (The poll also asked for votes for a second mission, should one be selected, and the results were similar.) I am surprised that the votes are not more evenly distributed: all the proposals are scientifically convincing. Psyche and Lucy, for example, would be exploratory missions to kinds of worlds never before visited. This survey likely represents the personal preferences of planetary exploration enthusiasts (although members of the professional planetary exploration community have also read the blog and may have voted) and therefore likely does not represent the evaluation weights that will be applied by planetary exploration enthusiasts. NASA managers. (So ​​far, among various mission selections, my favorite proposals have been selected perhaps about 25% of the time.)

In the coming weeks, we will likely learn which of these proposals will be the most recent mission or missions approved by NASA. Whichever is chosen will contribute significantly to our understanding of the solar system.

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