In 2025 NASA will either launch a probe to bring back samples from comet 67P, previously visited by Rosetta, or send a drone-like craft to Saturn’s moon Titan

NASA has selected two finalists for its New Frontiers programme: a mission to bring back bits of a comet, and a spacecraft that will land on the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan.

Each of the teams will receive $4 million to continue developing its concept and working out any kinks. In July 2019, NASA will choose a single mission to launch in 2025. The final winner will receive $850 million and a rocket ride to its chosen destination.

The two finalists, called Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return (CAESAR) and Dragonfly, were selected from a set of 12 proposals submitted in April. Runners-up include a mission to collect samples from the moon, a probe for Saturn’s atmosphere, and missions to Venus and Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

CAESAR aims to send a craft to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko – the same one that the Rosetta spacecraft and Philae lander visited in 2014 – and bring back 100 grams of rock and ice.

The researchers chose a comet we’ve already visited because it’s easier to prepare for a terrain that’s already been mapped. “We can design for specific conditions that we know to exist, and what that does is it dramatically increases the chances of success,” Steve Squyres, the mission’s principle investigator, said at a press conference yesterday.

Squyres said he hopes that CAESAR will help us learn how comet 67P formed and thus about conditions in the early solar system – and maybe even how similar comets may have brought the ingredients for life to Earth.

Dragonfly is a concept for a drone-like spacecraft to land on the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan. Its aim is to examine the hazy world’s habitability and look for prebiotic chemistry there – molecules that are the precursors to the evolution of life. It will be able to fly around Titan so that it can land at dozens of different spots and test surface and atmospheric compositions.

Titan’s thick atmosphere, rivers and lakes of liquid methane make it one of the most promising spots in the solar system for life. If Dragonfly is selected, its principle investigator Elizabeth Turtle said “we can evaluate how far pre-biotic chemistry has progressed.”

Two other proposals, one to land on Venus and one to look for signs of life on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, were deemed too difficult to accomplish with today’s technology, but have still received some funding to develop new technologies that might make them more feasible in the future.

Read more: Titan’s conditions could be just right to power US-sized colony

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