Go to a comet? Or Titan? NASA sets up showdown

Dragonfly probe
An artist’s conception shows the sequence leading to the landing of the Dragonfly probe and the deployment of its rotorcraft on Titan. (NASA Illustration)

A rotorcraft that could flit around the Saturnian moon Titan and a probe that could bring a sample back from an already-famous comet have emerged as top prospects for a future NASA mission.

Those two mission concepts were selected for further study from a list of 12 proposals that were submitted for NASA’s New Frontiers portfolio, aimed at space missions with a development cost cap of about $850 million.

Examples of existing New Frontiers projects include the Juno orbiter circling Jupiter, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft that’s on its way to sample a near-Earth asteroid, and the New Horizons probe that flew past Pluto and is now heading toward another icy object on the edge of the solar system.

A showdown is expected to result in one of the two new mission concepts moving onward to its development phase in 2019, NASA said today.

Both concepts call for robotic probes to be launched in the 2020s and yield results in the 2030s.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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