Artist’s concept of the solar system. Credit: NASA

NASA announced Thursday it will fund four concept studies for potential robotic missions to Venus, Jupiter’s moon Io and Neptune’s moon Triton ahead of a decision next year to approve up to two of the projects for launch in the mid-to-late 2020s.

The space agency chose the four mission concepts as semi-finalists from more than a dozen proposals submitted by U.S. scientists last year. NASA plans to select up to two of the final four proposals in 2021 to proceed into full development for a pair of launch opportunities in 2025 or 2026 and 2028 or 2029.

Two of the missions concepts selected by NASA Thursday would explore Venus, Earth’s hellish twin with a dense carbon dioxide atmosphere, clouds of sulfuric acid and scorching surface temperatures as hot as 880 degrees Fahrenheit (471 degrees Celsius).

NASA has not launched a mission to Venus since 1989, when the Magellan radar mapper set off from Earth to peer beneath Venus’s thick clouds and map the planet’s volcanic landscape for the first time.

Another mission approved for further study was the Io Volcano Observer, or IVO, a spacecraft that would orbit Jupiter and pass near the moon Io, the most volcanically active body in the solar system.

And NASA selected Trident — a flyby probe targeting Neptune’s moon Triton — for a detailed concept study. Trident would follow up on observations made by NASA’s Voyager 2 mission in 1989, which revealed Triton — nearly as big as Earth’s moon — harbors geyser-like plumes erupting from its icy surface.

“These selected missions have the potential to transform our understanding of some of the solar system’s most active and complex worlds,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s science mission directorate. “Exploring any one of these celestial bodies will help unlock the secrets of how it, and others like it, came to be in the cosmos.”

Each of the mission teams will receive $3 million to perform detailed nine-month studies to mature their concepts and present a report to NASA Headquarters. NASA officials will review the reports and select up to two of the four concepts for development.

The four would-be space missions are vying to become the next two projects in NASA’s Discovery line of cost-capped planetary science missions. NASA solicited proposals last year, and the missions must fit under a $500 million cost cap, excluding launch costs and international contributions.

Here are the four missions selected by NASA:

  • DAVINCI+ (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging Plus)
  • Io Volcano Observer (IVO)
  • Trident
  • VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy)

The DAVINCI+, VERITAS and Io Volcano Observer mission concepts are based on proposals submitted to NASA during past Discovery selection rounds. Trident is a new concept made possible by NASA’s decision to allow scientists to propose using plutonium power generators on Discovery-class probes, enabling budget missions to the outer solar system for the first time.

Previous Discovery-class missions included the Dawn spacecraft, which orbited two of the largest objects in the asteroid belt, the Messenger mission to Mercury, and the InSight lander currently

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