Selected NASA Discovery Missions Include Three With PSI Ties

Planetary Science Institute researchers are working on three of five Discovery missions selected for further consideration by NASA. One or two of the missions will be selected for flight opportunities as early as 2020.

Each of the five teams selected will receive $3 million to conduct concept design studies and analyses. After a detailed review and evaluation of the concept studies, NASA will make the final selections by September 2016 for continued development leading up to launch. Any final selected mission will cost approximately $500 million, not including launch vehicle funding or the cost of post-launch operations.

Three PSI researchers – Mark Sykes, Vishnu Reddy and Tommy Grav – will serve as Co-Investigators on the Near Earth Object Camera (NEOcam) mission, which would discover 10 times more near-Earth objects than all NEOs discovered to date.

“NEOCAM fills an essential role that will support not only science, but targets for human exploration, space resources and planetary defense,” said Sykes, PSI’s Director and CEO who will identify and catalog extended solar system structures associated with small bodies, such as comet trails and asteroid collisional dust bands. He will also contribute to the scientific interpretation of the survey results.

“We have been working on NEOCam since 2005 and it is very exciting to get selected. NEOCam is an excellent platform for discovering more potentially hazardous asteroids and help keep the Earth safe,” said PSI Senior Scientist Grav, whose role on NEOCam is a member of the pipeline development team who will also lead the survey cadence optimization and performance simulation and verification.

“Nothing like having a mission that will save planet Earth from hazardous asteroids,” said PSI Research Scientist Reddy, who will be a Co-Investigator on the mission characterizing asteroids discovered by NEOCam. Amy Mainzer of JPL is the principal investigator, and JPL would manage the project.

PSI Senior Scientist David Grinspoon is a Co-Investigator on the Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging (DAVINCI) mission. DAVINCI would study the chemical composition of Venus’ atmosphere during a 63-minute descent. It would answer scientific questions that have been considered high priorities for many years, such as whether there are volcanoes active today on the surface of Venus and how the surface interacts with the atmosphere of the planet. Grinspoon will a focus on the distribution and evolution of water in the atmosphere, the evolution of climate, the implications for past habitability, and chemical interactions between the surface and atmosphere.

“DAVINCI will be the first exploration of the deep atmosphere of Venus in a generation. It will explore the climate and evolution of Earth’s twin planet, and study how the atmosphere is interacting with surface geology,” Grinspoon said. “It promises answers to many fundamental questions about the formation and evolution of Earth-like planets. This will help us understand the evolution of climate and the extremes of planetary habitability, and will provide essential context for interpreting the Earth-like extrasolar planets just now being discovered.”

Lori Glaze of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is the principal investigator. Goddard would manage the project.

PSI Senior Scientist Thomas Prettyman is a Co-Investigator and member of the gamma ray and neutron spectrometer team on the Psyche mission that would explore the origin of planetary cores by studying the metallic asteroid Psyche. This asteroid is likely the survivor of a violent hit-and-run with another object that stripped off the outer, rocky layers of a protoplanet.

“Psyche is thought to be the exposed core of a planetary embryo – perhaps like Vesta – that underwent magmatic differentiation to form a layered structure core-mantle-crust. The outer layers were likely stripped away by collisions,” Prettyman said. “Our proposed mission to Psyche will provide a close-up look at a metallic planetary core, providing a detailed understanding of interior processes.”

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