NASA has a lot of balls in the air right now, so to speak. From the Mars 2020 rover mission to the anticipated return of humans to the Moon in 2024, there’s a lot going on at the US space agency these days. Despite that, NASA is always looking to the future and planning for missions even farther down the road.
But NASA has finite resources, and it can’t do absolutely everything it wants to, no matter how exciting its would-be missions seem. In a new blog post today, NASA lays out a handful of new missions that it is currently considering. Each of these relatively low-cost missions would last for around nine months, but choosing between them isn’t going to be easy.
The potential missions were proposed by teams as part of NASA’s Discovery Program, and each team will receive a $3 million allowance to “develop and mature” their plans before NASA picks which missions it will actually carry out.
Here’s the breakdown of each of the four potential missions:
DAVINCI+ (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging Plus)
DAVINCI+ will analyze Venus’ atmosphere to understand how it formed, evolved and determine whether Venus ever had an ocean. DAVINCI+ plunges through Venus’ inhospitable atmosphere to precisely measure its composition down to the surface.
Io Volcano Observer (IVO)
IVO would explore Jupiter’s moon, Io, to learn how tidal forces shape planetary bodies. Io is heated by the constant crush of Jupiter’s gravity and is the most volcanically active body in the solar system. Little is known about Io’s specific characteristics, such as whether a magma ocean exists in its interior. Using close-in flybys, IVO would assess how magma is generated and erupted on Io.
Trident would explore Triton, a unique and highly active icy moon of Neptune, to understand pathways to habitable worlds at tremendous distances from the Sun. NASA’s Voyager 2 mission showed that Triton has active resurfacing—generating the second youngest surface in the solar system—with the potential for erupting plumes and an atmosphere. Coupled with an ionosphere that can create organic snow and the potential for an interior ocean, Triton is an exciting exploration target to understand how habitable worlds may develop in our solar system and others.
VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy)
VERITAS would map Venus’ surface to determine the planet’s geologic history and understand why Venus developed so differently than the Earth. Orbiting Venus with a synthetic aperture radar, VERITAS charts surface elevations over nearly the entire planet to create three-dimensional reconstructions of topography and confirm whether processes, such as plate tectonics and volcanism, are still active on Venus.
Every single one of these missions sounds exciting and they all have the potential to teach us a lot about our solar system and planets that live here. They’re all potentially important, and it would be great if NASA could carry out all four of them instead of the expected two.
That being said, if I absolutely had to choose just one of these proposals, the TRIDENT mission sounds like it could be the most exciting. Exploring Triton, figuring out what its surface is like, why it’s so active, and even uncovering the existence of a subsurface ocean would be seriously groundbreaking, and could lead to future missions that explore that ocean in search of life. That’s some seriously exciting stuff.