Now the real year 2010 has arrived. Though human missions to the outer planets are still far in the future, there are plenty of practical ventures for space enthusiasts to get excited about--and bug Congress to fund. In particular, NASA just announced three new competing mission proposals. Before you tune out, allow me to explain that to this geek, NASA's press release read like the transcript to a late-season episode of American Idol.
During 2010, three university research teams will receive $3 million each to refine their mission plans and convince NASA they deserve the grand prize: a 2018 rocket launch to visit another celestial body. As a reminder, a previous winner, called New Horizons, is currently speeding toward Pluto. Expect cool pictures in 2015. Now, who will be America's next Cosmic Idol?
Perhaps it will be a nifty mission named "SAGE": a probe designed to explore the volatile atmosphere and surface of the planet Venus. Venus has been something of a scorned mistress ever since ruddy Mars proved more life-like. Perhaps it's time to give this stormy goddess another look.
However, the next pioneering voyage may go by the name "OSIRIS-REX" This robotic probe would land on an asteroid and return samples to Earth. This is the mission I want to win. And for the right reason. My dinosaur-crazed nephew worries about another asteroid hitting the Earth. I think he'd like this mission too. Still, the effort it must have taken to coin a 9-letter acronym gives me pause. Is the principle investigator of OSIRIS-REX one of those Carl Sagan wannabes prone to wasting precious time/dollars dancing with the devil in the details? C'mon, a sample return mission to an asteroid is automatically cool. Did you really have to name it Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer?
Finally, contender number three goes by the name "MoonRise". This no-nonsense, acronym-free mission would involve a moonshot, a robotic retrieval of two pounds of lunar rock, and return of said samples for study on Earth. Though it might elicit the least pop-culture fanfare, this mission would be a great way to cap off the International Lunar Decade. (Did you know we are currently in a Lunar Decade? The Planetary Society does. Kudos to them!)
Well, if you've made it through this space-related blog, you deserve a treat. So I reward you with the most awesome International Space Station photo of 2009. If it fails to wow you, then I guess you don't think it's cool to stare down the mouth of an erupting volcano from 250 miles up. Happy New Year and Ad Astra!
Image Credit: NASA