Thursday, July 19, 2012

Cast Your Vote for the Next Discovery Mission!

The above image shows three possible NASA missions. On the left, the InSight mission is designed to map the structure of Mars. (Image Credit: JPL/NASA) In the center, the TiME mission would float on a hydrocarbon sea on Titan. (Image Credit: Johns Hopkins Univ. Applied Physics Laboratory/Lockheed Martin) On the right, the Chopper mission seeks to study a comet in depth. (Image Credit: NASA/GSFC/University of Maryland)

On July 11th, the journal Nature published online an article, by Eric Hand, reviewing the three finalists for NASA's next low-cost mission to our solar system. If you have not read it yet, I encourage you check it out.

Very soon, NASA's Discovery Program will award one of these mission proposals with $425 USD to further the study of Mars, Titan, or comets. But which proposal should get the green light? Here is a brief rundown of each.


The Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission would map out the deep structure of Mars by listening to its faint, visceral rumblings. The mission would borrow its design from the 2007 Phoenix lander, which proved that Discovery-budget Mars lander missions were possible. InSight would land in 2016 at Elysium Planitia, a large, relatively smooth area near the Martian equator, with lots of sunlight for a solar-powered mission. A sensitive seismometer would be plunged into the surface and seek to better understand the internal structure of Mars and how it developed. The InSight mission proposal is led by Bruce Banerdt of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.


The Titan Mare Explorer (TiME) mission would take a 1.5-hour parachute descent to the surface of Ligeia Mare, a hydrocarbon sea near the north pole of Titan that is larger than North America's Lake Superior. TiME would then drift freely and study the Titan weather and sea. NASA’s current mission to the Saturn system, Cassini, has already observed hydrocarbons such as methane and ethane on Titan, and delivered the Huygens probe to briefly study the surface. But a spectrometer on TiME will be able to study the hydrocarbon soup in detail, looking for signs of a complex prebiotic chemistry. The TiME mission proposal is led by Ellen Stofan of Proxemy Research in Laytonsville, Maryland.


The Comet Hopper (Chopper) mission would rendezvous in 2012 with the 1.2-kilometer-wide Comet 46P/Wirtanen and spend then spend at least two years tagging along. Chopper would meet 46P/Wirtanen at roughtly the distance of Jupiter's orbit, then watch as it hurtled toward the sun and develop its effervescent coma. Twelve times during the mission, chopper would gently land on the comet and stick sensors into the surface to study the comet's composition. Identifying the physical and chemical processes of the comet could reveal whether the variation between comets reflects conditions of the primoridal outer solar system, which was previously thought to be relatively uniform. The Chopper mission proposal is led by Jessica Sunshine, a planetary scientist at the University of Maryland in College Park.

Take the Poll

Of course, the final decision on the proposal winner rests with NASA. But you at least have a chance to give your opinion on the choice. The Nature article includes a poll in which you may select your preference from the three finalists. So don't wait! Vote now! CLICK HERE to read the Nature article and cast your vote.


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