The Cassini mission gave us a remarkable look at a Saturn and beamed back images that astounded astronomers and researchers. But, what will be the next big mission of our time?
The Cassini mission ended dramatically as the probe entered into a planned kamikaze orbit and broke apart in Saturn’s atmosphere, thus avoiding the risk of contamination. The mission may be over but NASA are looking to the future and will decide on a New Frontiers-class mission by the end of 2017. This class of mission is at medium cost to NASA, and gave us missions such as Juno, New Horizons, and OSIRIS-Rex. When selected, the preparation for the mission will begin immediately paving the way for a mid-2020s launch date.
Of the many proposals submitted by various research centers and institutes, a handful of finalists have been selected for serious consideration.
The favorites are moon missions, landing rovers on the moon and sending supplies in preparation for a manned landing when the SLS is finally ready to transport astronauts.
A Venus lander is also under consideration, to gather more information about the atmosphere of Venus and to discover whether or not life has ever been possible on the currently immensely inhospitable world.
Comet Sample Return
A comet sample return mission has also made it through for consideration, aiming to visit a nearby comet and return with valuable resources to study. This could pave the way for future space mining operations.
Buoyed by the success of Cassini, 5 proposals for missions to the neighborhood of Saturn have also been included. The Saturn Probe Interior and Atmosphere Explorer wants to dive straight into Saturn and explore its gassy atmosphere, hopefully staying intact a little longer than Cassini did.
Enceladus has been in the news recently, after Cassini spotted the possibility of conditions fit for life in its sub-surface oceans. Competing proposals for Enceladus missions have made it through. One mission would send an orbiter to travel through the plumes of Enceladus several times and check for organic chemicals, and the details of the other, Enceladus Life Signatures and Habitability, is currently being kept a secret from the public.
Enceladus is also a favorite amongst NASA leaders as it is thought to be one of the only places in our Solar System, other than Earth, where life could possibly exist today.
Last but not least, 2 very different proposals suggest we should visit Titan. We have sent a lander to Titan in the past and it did find the first evidence of a liquid ocean away from Earth. One Titan proposal wants to send an orbiter and the other would put a drone into its atmosphere to explore the moon.
NASA will also decide on Discovery Class missions later on, which have a lower budget than the New Frontiers class, but similar aims in sending probes to Titan and Enceladus.