NASA Invests in Concept Development for Missions to Comet, Saturn Moon Titan

CAESAR (Comet Astrobiology Exploration SAmple Return) spacecraft. (Credit: NASA)

WASHINGTON, DC (NASA PR) — NASA has selected two finalist concepts for a robotic mission planned to launch in the mid-2020s: a comet sample return mission and a drone-like rotorcraft that would explore potential landing sites on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.

The agency announced the concepts Wednesday, following an extensive and competitive peer review process. The concepts were chosen from 12 proposals submitted in April under a New Frontiers program announcement of opportunity.

“This is a giant leap forward in developing our next bold mission of science discovery,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “These are tantalizing investigations that seek to answer some of the biggest questions in our solar system today.”

The finalists are:

Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return (CAESAR)

CAESAR sample return system (Credit: NASA)

The CAESAR mission seeks to return a sample from 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, a comet that was successfully explored by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft, to determine its origin and history. Led by Steve Squyres of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, CAESAR would be managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.


Dragonfly Titan explorer. (Credit: NASA)

Dragonfly is a drone-like rotorcraft that would explore the prebiotic chemistry and habitability of dozens of sites on Saturn’s moon Titan, an ocean world in our solar system. Elizabeth Turtle from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, is the lead investigator, with APL providing project management.

The CAESAR and Dragonfly missions will receive funding through the end of 2018 to further develop and mature their concepts. NASA plans to select one of these investigations in the spring of 2019 to continue on to subsequent mission phases.

The selected mission will be the fourth in NASA’s New Frontiers portfolio, a series of principal investigator-led planetary science investigations that fall under a development cost cap of approximately $850 million. Its predecessors are the New Horizons mission to Pluto and a Kuiper Belt object known as 2014 MU69, the Juno mission to Jupiter, and OSIRIS-REx, which will rendezvous with and return a sample of the asteroid Bennu.

NASA also announced the selection of two mission concepts that will receive technology development funds to prepare them for future mission competitions.

The concepts selected for technology development are:

Enceladus Life Signatures and Habitability (ELSAH)

The ELSAH mission concept will receive funds to develop cost-effective techniques that limit spacecraft contamination and thereby enable life detection measurements on cost-capped missions. The principal investigator is Chris McKay of NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, and the managing NASA center is Goddard.

Venus In situ Composition Investigations (VICI)

Led by Lori Glaze at Goddard, the VICI mission concept will further develop the Venus Element and Mineralogy Camera to operate under the harsh conditions on Venus. The instrument uses lasers on a lander to measure the mineralogy and elemental composition of rocks on the surface of Venus.

The call for concepts was limited to six mission themes: comet surface sample return, lunar south pole-Aitken Basin sample return, ocean worlds (Titan and/or Enceladus), Saturn probe, Trojan asteroid tour and rendezvous, and Venus in situ explorer.

New Frontiers Program investigations address NASA’s planetary science objectives as described in the 2014 NASA Strategic Plan and the 2014 NASA Science Plan. The program is managed by the Planetary Missions Program Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency’s Planetary Science Division in Washington.

Read more about NASA’s New Frontiers Program and missions at:

  • therealdmt

    Count me in for one vote for Dragonfly

  • therealdmt

    Anyway, the main thing is, we must never go back to Venus. This selection process has done what it can to help assure that at least through the late 2030’s (Dragonfly would land on Titan in 2034 and CAESAR’s samples would be returned in late 2038), so I applaud all involved for the work they have done in this regard.

    Never Venus!

  • Zed_WEASEL

    It seem to me they already pick the winner. And it ain’t the Titan drone.

    The CAESAR mission is simple compare to get to and landing on Titan to deployed un-proven flying drone. Will be shock if the Titan Drone is not going to go over budget and schedule with

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  • therealdmt

    That’s what I was thinking too, unfortunately

  • Agree. Titan drone looks too risky for NASA, NASA doesn’t like a risk.

  • Paul451

    Range on the drone would be garbage, instrument payload would be garbage, hence science return would be garbage.

    Surely the better option for Titan would be to use a hydrogen balloon. Vastly more “payload” for the given lander payload (although it wouldn’t have a lander, per se). Vastly greater range, since it would rely on unpowered buoyancy, rather than electric rotors. And with an RTG (possible because of the payload capacity and lower power requirements of a balloon), vastly greater lifespan — see MSL, five years strong.