NASA picks project shortlist for next Discovery mission

A mission to sail the seas of Titan is one of three projects shortlisted by NASA for its next Discovery mission.

The Titan Mare Explorer, or TiME, would land and float on a large methane-ethane sea on the Saturnian moon, in the first direct inspection of an ocean environment beyond Earth.

It would launch in 2016 and reach Titan in 2023, parachuting onto the moon’s second-largest northern sea, the Ligeia Mare. For 96 days the capsule would study the composition and behavior of the sea and its interaction with Titan’s weather and climate.

The capsule would also look for the complex organic chemistry believed to exist on the moon, and which may be similar to that which led to the development of life on Earth.

Also picked from 28 hopefuls for the shortlist are a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory lander mission to study the Martian interior and a NASA Goddard project to land on a comet several times and observe its interaction with the Sun.

The three investigation teams will now each receive $3 million to develop a detailed concept study. After another review next year, NASA will pick one to see through to launch. The selected mission will be cost-capped at $425 million, not including launch vehicle funding.

“NASA’s comment on the Discovery selection was, ‘if ever there was a time to demonstrate being able to think differently, this is it’,” says John Sommerer, head of APL’s Space Department.

“It’s ‘common knowledge’ that outer-planets missions are billion-dollar operations, but our team proposed a lander on Titan in the low-cost Discovery mission series. Coming off the success of both the Messenger mission to Mercury and the New Horizons mission now on its way to Pluto, it’s clear that APL has met the challenge to think differently.”