The NASA Discovery program has a long history of reaching out to the commercial and educational sectors for new ideas. There are now a number of concepts being thrown around and one will be picked to receive funding through federal grants this August. The criteria has been fairly broad to allow each company to focus on its expertise, with the only exception that the theoretical mission could not focus on the Sun or the Earth.
Whichever is chosen, it will be part of the NASA Discovery launch. The program is the brainchild of Daniel S. Goldin, and was inaugurated in 1992. There are two major differences between this and other NASA missions: first, Discovery programs always have a lower cost cap and second, NASA does not have a predetermined concept, but rather lets the individual company’s propose what they would like. Afterwards, there is a peer-review process to go through. To date, there have been twelve Discovery missions, perhaps the best known being the Kepler space observatory.
There are a few differences with this round of funding. Nuclear fuel is out of the picture as NASA is running low on plutonium. On the plus side, the cap of $450 million will not include expenses after launch, which allows companies to focus on specific goals rather than longevity.
The NASA Discovery program is expecting to make another launch in 2021, with many key technologies, such as the NEXT ion thruster, being used.
Among the proposals, exploration of other planets moons is high on the list. Saturn’s Enceladus may be up for exploration. A team from Cornell has come up with a spacecraft they believe can fly through the moon’s water plumes in search of organic molecules. The plums were discovered back in 2005 by NASA’s Cassini orbiter.
Another possibility comes from the University of Arizona, this time targeting Jupiter’s Io moon. The spacecraft would launch with other missions funded through NASA Discovery to poke around the volcanic moon. These are just two of more than two dozen proposed plans. You can view a full list of solicitations here. After an initial round of selection this February and initial funding in August, the finalized plans will be released sometime in 2016.
Check out this video for beautiful visual storytelling featuring the Milky Way, reminding us why we fall in love with space: