NASA has announced two finalists for its next New
One project, called Dragonfly, would head to Saturn’s
largest moon, Titan.
The other, nicknamed Caesar, would fetch samples from
the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet.
NASA said that it would select a winner in 2019 and
that the mission would be launch-ready by 2025.
NASA on Wednesday announced two finalists for its next robotic
mission to explore mysterious corners of our solar system.
The finalists came from
12 proposals for the mission, called New Frontiers-4. (It
will be the fourth in the series of New Frontiers missions.)
NASA will choose a winner in 2019, granting it $850 million and a
free rocket ride into the solar system, at a combined value of
about $1 billion.
One of the finalists, named Dragonfly, is a lander that would
head to Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. The other, nicknamed Caesar
(full name Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return), would
go to the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet and collect samples.
Each team now has about one year and $4 million to finalize its
Here’s a glimpse at what the Dragonfly mission — which would
attempt to follow up on and advance the Cassini probe’s
groundbreaking 13-year exploration of Saturn — might look
Dragonfly is a dual-quadcopter lander built
and tested at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics
Laboratory. It would take advantage of the thick atmosphere of
Saturn’s largest moon to fly to a variety of locations, some
hundreds of miles apart.
“Titan is a unique ocean world,” Elizabeth Turtle, a planetary
scientist leading the Dragonfly mission proposal, said during a
NASA teleconference on Wednesday. “It has lakes and seas of
liquid and methane, and rivers that flow across the surface.”
The radioisotope-powered lander would sample materials and
determine surface composition to investigate Titan’s organic
chemistry and habitability, as well as monitor atmospheric and
surface conditions, capture images of landforms to investigate
geological processes, and perform seismic studies.
Turtle said the probe would arrive on Titan in 2034 and radio
data back to Earth as it hopped from location to location.
The other option, Caesar, would fly back to a comet that the
European Space Agency explored in 2004 with its Rosetta
The Caesar probe would grab a sample from the nucleus of
Churyumov-Gerasimenko in hopes of learning about how those
materials contributed to the early Earth, including its oceans
“They’re the most primitive building blocks of planets,” said
Steve Squyres, the Caesar mission leader, adding that comets
carry volatile ices that aren’t found anywhere else in the solar
“They obtain materials that date from the very earliest moments
of solar-system formation and even before,” Squyres said.
If picked, Squyres said, the spacecraft would collect at least a
100-gram sample of the comet to come back to Earth in capsules.
“The sample will arrive back on Earth on the 20th of November
2038 — so mark your calendars,” he said.
The spacecraft-manufacturing company Orbital ATK would
manufacture the Caesar probe, which would use solar-electric
Both missions would allow for a deeper exploration of fascinating
corners of the solar system that we already know a bit about.
other New Frontiers missions are the
New Horizons nuclear-powered probe that flew
by Pluto in 2015 and is now going deeper into the Kuiper
Osiris-Rex, a robot flying out to meet the Bennu asteroid and
bring a sample back to Earth in 2018; and Juno, which is looping
around Jupiter to record unprecedented data and
take breathtaking images.