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NASA shortlists three contenders for next robo-probe mission

Ice-moon sailboat, Martian drillrig, comet-furtler

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NASA has announced the shortlist for its next "Discovery" robot solar-system explorer mission and has also selected three groovy new space technologies for further funding.

Discovery missions are relatively inexpensive space shots – funding for this next one is limited to $425m plus launch costs – in which the flight plan is chosen from among different boffinry teams vying to get their chosen idea into space.

The final three in the latest round are, as one might expect, all quite nifty ideas. One would see a Mars lander (the Geophysical Monitoring Station, or GEMS) set down and sink a "thermal probe" beneath the surface. This and other instruments would reveal the secrets of the red planet's interior, and comparisons with Earth would tell boffins much more about the formation of planets in general.

The second plan, which we've reported on before, is a scheme which would see a small, nuclear-powered robotic sailboat splash down into one of the Great Lake-sized polar liquid-hydrocarbon seas of Titan, ice moon of Saturn. Titan is one of the most interesting places in the solar system: despite being a good bit smaller than Earth, the chilly moon has a thick atmosphere full of methane and patio gas. If humans ever travel there, it has been calculated that they would be able to strap wings to their arms and fly about due to the denser atmosphere and lower gravity.

The third plan, dubbed "Comet Hopper" would see a spacecraft accompanying a suitable comet through a significant portion of its passage through the inner solar system, watching the icy visitor as it interacted with the Sun and actually landing on it multiple times.

All three teams will now get $3m in funding to refine their ideas: NASA will pick a winner in 2012.

Meanwhile, the Discovery chiefs have also selected three new space-science technologies for further development funding. If these proceed well, they could be contenders in future mission competitions.

The first of these is a plan to study Near Earth Objects (NEOs, asteroids which pass through our part of the solar system) by placing a space telescope far out beyond the Moon – about four times as far as lunar orbit, in fact. This would give us a better handle on NEOs, which is a good idea both in terms of spotting potential planetsmasher threats and because the first manned space mission beyond the Moon is likely to be to an NEO.

The other two technologies selected are the Primitive Material Explorer (PriME), an instrument for probing comets and working out whether they did in fact kick off life on Earth, and Whipple, a plan to delve into the mysteries of the outer solar system.

There's more on the Discovery programme's many missions and achievements here. ®

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