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NASA eyes asteroid, Moon and Venus

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NASA has named the three finalists for a future New Frontiers mission, with competing teams eyeing an asteroid, the Moon and Venus as possible destinations.

The agency describes its New Frontiers programme as "frequent, medium-class spacecraft missions that will conduct high-quality, focused scientific investigations designed to enhance our understanding of the solar system". The trio of contenters would "probe the atmosphere and crust of Venus; return a piece of a near-Earth asteroid for analysis; or drop a robotic lander into a basin at the Moon's south pole to return lunar rocks back to Earth for study".

Ed Weiler, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said: "These are projects that inspire and excite young scientists, engineers and the public. These three proposals provide the best science value among eight submitted to NASA this year."

Each proposal team will now get around $3.3m to conduct a "12-month mission concept study that focuses on implementation feasibility, cost, management and technical plans". The final choice will be made in 2011, and the winner "must be ready for launch no later than 30 December 2018" at a total cost (excluding the launch vehicle) of $650m.

The three proposed missions are:

The Surface and Atmosphere Geochemical Explorer, or SAGE, mission to Venus would release a probe to descend through the planet's atmosphere. During descent, instruments would conduct extensive measurements of the atmosphere's composition and obtain meteorological data. The probe then would land on the surface of Venus, where its abrading tool would expose both a weathered and a pristine surface area to measure its composition and mineralogy. Scientists hope to understand the origin of Venus and why it is so different from Earth. Larry Esposito of the University of Colorado in Boulder, is the principal investigator.

The Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer spacecraft, called Osiris-Rex, would rendezvous and orbit a primitive asteroid. After extensive measurements, instruments would collect more than two ounces of material from the asteriod's surface for return to Earth. The returned samples would help scientists better undertand [sic] and answer long-held questions about the formation of our solar system and the origin of complex molecules necessary for life. Michael Drake, of the University of Arizona in Tucson, is the principal investigator.

MoonRise: Lunar South Pole-Aitken Basin Sample Return Mission would place a lander in a broad basin near the moon's south pole and return approximately two pounds of lunar materials for study. This region of the lunar surface is believed to harbor rocks excavated from the moon's mantle. The samples would provide new insight into the early history of the Earth-moon system. Bradley Jolliff, of Washington University in St. Louis, is the principal investigator.

Before the eventual winner finally gets off the ground, New Frontiers' New Horizons spacecraft is scheduled to rendevous with Pluto and its moon Charon in July 2015, while its Juno mission to Jupiter is slated to blast off in August 2011. ®

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