On Wednesday, NASA announced the five planetary mission proposals the agency will fund for further development through its Discovery program. The proposed missions — four of which are led by women — will take the next step in vying for full approval and funding.
Unlike NASA's flagship missions — think the Mars rovers, New Horizons' trip to the Pluto system and any future crewed missions — the ones launched via the Discovery program happen quickly and (relatively) cheaply. The program allows scientists to dig deep into very specific scientific questions. The Dawn mission, which is orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres, is a great example of a Discovery program mission gone right.
Each of the five teams will receive $3 million in funding — a paltry sum, compared to the estimated $500 million each mission would cost — and will spend the next year conducting concept design studies and analysis. In September 2016, NASA will choose which of the five missions will receive complete funding. Whichever mission is selected (and it's likely there will only be one) could launch as early as 2020.
And oh, the places we might go! Venus is a likely candidate for a (robotic) visit, and several asteroids and near-earth objects are on the table as well.
Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging (DAVINCI), led by Lori Glaze of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, would use a 63-minute descent onto the surface of Venus to study its atmosphere, as well as to determine whether its volcanoes remain active. The Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy mission (VERITAS), led by Suzanne Smrekar of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, would produce high-resolution imagery and maps of the planet's surface.
In asteroid-ville, we have Psyche and Lucy. Lucy, led by Harold Levison of the Southwest Research Institute, would have us visit the Jupiter trojan asteroids for the very first time. Psyche, led by Linda Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University, would study an asteroid of the same name. The asteroid Psyche is one of the biggest objects in the asteroid belt, and it's thought to be the remains of a protoplanet that was stripped of its outer layers by a violent collision.
Finally there's Near Earth Object Camera (NEOCam), led by Amy Mainzer of JPL. NEOCam will study the asteroids and comets that closely orbit the sun, coming fairly close to Earth. We already know of about 10,000 Near Earth Objects, and this camera could discover 10 times as many.