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Destination Venus? NASA announces five finalists for next Discovery mission

NASA announced five investigative teams to explore focused scientific questions, one or two of which will result in flight missions.

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Artist's concept of the Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy (Veritas) spacecraft, a proposed mission for NASA's Discovery program.

JPL-Caltech/NASA

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Next stop, Venus?

NASA announced Thursday it has green-lighted five investigations into potential missions over the next year as a first step in selecting one or two flights as early as 2020 as part of its Discovery Program.

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The program was created in 1992 – funding 12 missions to date – and sponsors cost-capped solar system exploration missions with hyper-focused scientific goals. Out of 27 submissions this year, the pool was culled to five proposals, two of which would study Venus, with the others exploring near-Earth objects and a variety of asteroids. 

Each investigation team is granted $3 million, considered a low-cost investment by the space agency, to conduct concept design studies and analyses. NASA will make the final selections by September 2016 following mission pitches. Any selected mission will cost approximately $500 million, not including launch vehicle funding or the cost of post-launch operations, according to NASA

"The selected investigations have the potential to reveal much about the formation of our solar system and its dynamic processes,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Dynamic and exciting missions like these hold promise to unravel the mysteries of our solar system and inspire future generations of explorers. It’s an incredible time for science, and NASA is leading the way.”

Those selected to pursue concept design studies and pitch their ideas to NASA by September 2016 in this round are:

Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging (DAVINCI) 

DAVINCI would endeavor a 63-minute descent to Venus to study the chemical composition of the planet's atmosphere, seeking answers to questions like whether there are volcanoes active today on the surface of Venus, and how the surface interacts with the atmosphere of the planet. Lori Glaze of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., is the principal investigator on this project.

Psyche

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Asteroid Psyche is the subject of the eponymous project, which will seek to understand the origin of planetary cores by studying the metallic asteroid. The team thinks the asteroid is likely "the survivor" of a crash with another space object that stripped off the outer, rocky layers of a protoplanet. Linda Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona is the principal investigator. 

Artist's concept of the Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy (Veritas) spacecraft, a proposed mission for NASA's Discovery program.
JPL-Caltech/NASA

The Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy mission (VERITAS)

The goal of VERITAS is to make global, high-resolution mapping of Venus’ surface and produce the first-ever maps of global surface composition. Suzanne Smrekar of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., is the principal investigator. 

Near Earth Object Camera (NEOCam)

NEOCam would discover ten times more near-Earth objects than all NEOs discovered to date, and endeavor to characterize them. Amy Mainzer of JPL is the principal investigator.

Artist's concept of the NEOCam spacecraft, a proposed mission for NASA's Discovery program that would conduct an extensive survey for potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroids.
JPL-Caltech/NASA

Lucy

Lucy seeks to understand the history of the solar system through a mission the Jupiter Trojan asteroids, objects thought to hold some important clues. Harold Levison of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado is the principal investigator.