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NASA picks finalists for new billion-dollar robotic space mission

21 December 2017

NASA's new billion-dollar robotic space mission would either deploy a nuclear-powered quadcopter to explore the hazy landscape of Saturn's largest moon Titan, or a probe to scoop up a piece of a comet and return it to earth.

Announcing its selections yesterday, the space agency picked up the two concepts from 12 proposals submitted by scientists earlier this year in a competition to win government funding to build and launch a mission by the end of 2025.

The teams behind the Dragonfly mission to Titan and the CAESAR mission to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko would receive $4 million from NASA over the next year to refine their plans and designs. NASA would then decide in July 2019 which mission would go forward to launch.

The winner would become the fourth mission in NASA's New Frontiers programme, a series of science-driven solar system probes that have been capped at about $1 billion. Earlier missions have produced the New Horizons mission to Pluto, the Juno orbiter at Jupiter, and the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, which is on its way to bring a sample of an asteroid to earth.

The Dragonfly mission would reach Titan in 2034, make its way through the thick atmosphere and deploy a rotorcraft to make multiple hops across the moon's alien surface over a two-year mission. 

According to commentators, the exotic moon is very different from earth, but its complex chemistry makes it a fascinating target to search for the development of life. The moon was earlier mapped in detail by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, which flew by several times. The mission's Huygens lander, which descended to Titan's surface in 2005 also mapped the moon.

According to Elizabeth Turtle, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Maryland and principal investigator for Dragonfly,  Dragonfly's detailed measurements of the moon's composition, "we can evaluate how far prebiotic chemistry has progressed in an environment we know has the ingredients for life - for water-based life, or potentially even hydrocarbon-based life." She was speaking at a news conference.

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