With a little luck, scientists and engineers at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt will help to send a NASA spacecraft to land on an asteroid or on Venus late in this decade.
The two proposed interplanetary missions with Goddard connections were among three selected Monday to receive $3.3 million each for further cost and feasibility study under NASA's New Frontiers program. Only one will be funded after a final cut later this year.
The winning mission would have to launch by 2018, and cost less than $650 million.
One of the three is SAGE, for Surface and Atmospheric Geochemical Explorer. It would release a probe to the surface of Venus, where it must survive 840-degree temperatures and 90 times Earth's atmospheric pressure long enough to gather clues to the planet's early history.
The principal investigator is Larry Esposito of the University of Colorado in Boulder. Goddard's Paul Mahaffy is a co-investigator on a Goddard-built instrument that would gather atmospheric chemistry data.
"We're really interested in learning why similar terrestrial planets [Venus, Earth and Mars] are so dramatically different," Mahaffy said.
Chemical studies of the atmosphere may reveal whether Venus ever had water oceans that were lost to space.
"It's entirely plausible the water was lost, and other gases, such as carbon dioxide, contributed to a greenhouse effect" that drove temperatures so high, he said. "We have models that are increasingly sophisticated, trying to predict how Earth will warm over time." Testing those models on Venus or Mars can help scientists understand planetary change, "how robust the climate situation on Earth is, and how easy it might be to tip it" into something inhospitable to life.
The second proposed mission, called OSIRIS-REx, would send a spacecraft to orbit an asteroid. The craft would then settle onto the space rock, retrieve a sample from its surface and return it to Earth.
Goddard would provide mission management, systems engineering, instruments and safety assurance. The principle investigator is Michael Drake, of the University of Arizona.
The third mission in the final New Frontiers competition is MoonRise. It would send a lander to the moon's south pole, collect two pounds of soil and return it to Earth. It's led by Bradley Jolliff, at Washington University and NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in California.
The first New Frontiers mission was New Horizons, a mission to the dwarf planet Pluto. Developed and managed by Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab near Laurel, the mission was launched in 2006 and is on course to fly by Pluto and its moons in 2015.
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