NASA has announced the two finalists for the next New Frontiers mission to take place in the mid-2020s. Those missions are CAESAR or Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return and Titan Dragonfly. Moreover, the space agency selected ELSAH or Enceladus Life Signatures and Habitability and VICI or Venus In Situ Composition Investigations missions for further technological development for a future selection process.

The funding cap for a New Frontiers mission is about $850 million. Past and ongoing missions include New Horizons, which flew by Pluto a couple of years ago, Juno, currently in orbit around Jupiter, and OSIRIS-REx which will take a sample from the asteroid Bennu and return it to Earth for study.

Dragonfly to Titan

The most innovative New Frontier option is called Dragonfly, which will consist of an aerial drone that will fly in the skies over Titan, a Moon Of Saturn. Titan is noted for its liquid methane seas and streams and thick nitrogen atmosphere with traces of methane and ethane. The drone, quadrocopter, would fly to dozens of sites on Titan and study their chemistry and habitability. The Dragonfly mission would be the first time that an aircraft would fly over the surface of another world. Titan has been previously studied by the Cassini probe.

CAESAR to a comet

CAESAR is a mission that would return a sample from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The comet has been previously visited by the European Space Agency Rosetta spacecraft. Rosetta orbited the comet while a companion probe, Philae, landed on its surface.

The Rosetta mission lasted for two years and found organic compounds on the surface of the comet.

Two also-rans get additional funding

ELSAH is a probe that would search for biosignatures in the plumes that are erupting from Enceladus, another moon of Saturn. Enceladus is an ice capped world that is thought to have a warm, subsurface ocean where life might reside. Water from that world is erupting through cracks in the ice layer and spewing into space. Enceladus was also extensively studied by Cassini.

VICI is a probe that would land on Venus to study that planet’s geology to determine its formation and history. The mission would be very challenging because of Venus’ high surface temperature and atmospheric pressure, Previous landers have lasted only a few hours due to the harsh conditions on the surface of Venus.

What happens next?

The funding would last through 2018. The winner of the next New Frontiers mission competition would be selected in the spring of 2019 for a launch sometime around 2025. Both probes would reach their targets in the early 2030s.