One of the most ambitious new space projects slated for launch within the next decade is going to be crowdsourced. Earlier this week, NASA put out an Announcement of Opportunity for its New Frontiers Program, and if you happen to be a particularly excellent planetary scientist with ideas for how to spend our space bucks while we know we have them, you should most definitely answer the call.
NASA stipulated that investigations would be limited to the following six mission themes, not one of which is fucking around in the slightest:
• Comet Surface Sample Return
• Lunar South Pole-Aitken Basin Sample Return
• Ocean Worlds (Titan and/or Enceladus)
• Saturn Probe
• Trojan Tour and Rendezvous
• Venus In Situ Explorer
Only one of these will advance to the next round (subsequent mission phases). All have their audacious qualities, but the comet surface sample return or the exploration of distant icy worlds like Titan or Enceladus are clear frontrunners in the search for extant life. Successfully returning a sample would be a massive get for NASA; ancient comets are among the most pristine and geologically valuable sources of material for studying the origins of life in our galaxy, and the existence of subsurface oceans on Titan and Enceladus raises high hopes they may possess the ingredients for allowing life to flourish.
Applicants will be narrowed to a handful of finalists by November 2017, with the winner selected in the summer of 2019. The investigation itself would then be slated to launch by the end of 2025.
New Frontiers is currently running three active missions: New Horizons, which is teaching us cool new things about Pluto; the Juno spacecraft, which is still enjoying a successful orbit of Jupiter; and OSIRIS-REx, which is studying the asteroid Bennu with plans to return a sample of its own.