THESE ARE THE VOYAGES of the space probe Discovery

Its continuing reasonably priced mission: To discover secrets of the Solar System

Artist's impression of how Fomalhalt b might look

NASA's scheme for reasonably priced space probes, the Discovery programme, has issued a new short list of ideas for its next economical science-shot.

The idea is to choose a cunning lightweight mission which can be ready to go in no more than a few years, and get it out into space before it can snowball into a budgetary monster.

"The selected investigations have the potential to reveal much about the formation of our solar system and its dynamic processes,” said John Grunsfeld, veteran Shuttle astronaut and former top boffin of NASA, now a big cheese at the agency's Science Mission Directorate. “Dynamic and exciting missions like these hold promise to unravel the mysteries of our solar system and inspire future generations of explorers. It’s an incredible time for science, and NASA is leading the way.”

The shortlisted missions include two to Venus, one to the strange naked protoplanet Psyche, a Near-Earth-Object asteroid finder, and one which would travel to a Trojan point of Jupiter and investigate the strange detritus to be found there.

As NASA puts it:

Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging (DAVINCI)

DAVINCI would study the chemical composition of Venus’ atmosphere during a 63-minute descent. It would answer scientific questions that have been considered high priorities for many years, such as whether there are volcanoes active today on the surface of Venus and how the surface interacts with the atmosphere of the planet. Lori Glaze of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is the principal investigator. Goddard would manage the project.

The Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy mission (VERITAS)

VERITAS would produce global, high-resolution topography and imaging of Venus’ surface and produce the first maps of deformation and global surface composition. Suzanne Smrekar of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California is the principal investigator. JPL would manage the project.

Psyche

Psyche would explore the origin of planetary cores by studying the metallic asteroid Psyche. This asteroid is likely the survivor of a violent hit-and-run with another object that stripped off the outer, rocky layers of a protoplanet. Linda Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona is the principal investigator. JPL would manage the project.

Near Earth Object Camera (NEOCam)

NEOCAM would discover ten times more near-Earth objects than all NEOs discovered to date. It would also begin to characterize them. Amy Mainzer of JPL is the principal investigator, and JPL would manage the project.

Lucy

Lucy would perform the first reconnaissance of the Jupiter Trojan asteroids, objects thought to hold vital clues to deciphering the history of the solar system. Harold Levison of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado is the principal investigator. Goddard would manage the project.

Each mission team now gets $3m to develop their plans, presumably this includes making up a suitable acronym for the teams that don't have one yet. Then, NASA will choose just one mission which will receive the jackpot of $500m (plus launch costs and post-launch operations).

So, what do we think?

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