ST. LOUIS — NASA's next big space mission could be to Venus, to an asteroid or back to the moon. If it goes to the moon, St. Louis researchers will play an important role.
NASA announced three finalists for the New Frontiers space science program last week. One project, called "MoonRise," would use an unmanned, robotically controlled lander to collect lunar rocks for further analysis. That project would be led by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis.
NASA officials also are considering a mission to probe Venus' atmosphere, led by the University of Colorado, and a University of Arizona project to collect samples from a near-Earth asteroid for analysis.
Winning the competition is worth up to $650 million. NASA is expected to make a selection by the middle of next year, and the project would have to be ready for launch by 2019.
The three finalists were selected from eight entries. Each will receive about $3.3 million from NASA this year for a study to determine cost, management and technical planning, NASA officials said.
"These are projects that inspire and excite young scientists, engineers and the public," Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said.
The MoonRise lander would set down in a basin near the moon's south pole and bring back about 2 pounds of lunar material from a region believed to include rocks from the moon's mantle, which is the area closest to its core. The goal would be to gain insight into the early history of the Earth-moon system, said Bradley Jolliff, professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University and the principal researcher for the project.
Jolliff said the collection of pea-sized rocks could answer questions about the solar system's first 600 million years, when the Earth and Moon were bombarded with solar particles and cosmic rays and life on Earth began.
The Apollo missions collected moon rocks, but the last time was in 1972. Washington University researchers say rocks from deep in the Moon's crust were poorly represented in Apollo mission samples, so new collections are needed.
University of Colorado researchers want to send a spacecraft to Venus and release a probe into the planet's atmosphere to measure its composition and obtain meteorological data. The probe also would land on the surface of Venus and measure its composition and mineralogy.
The mission would allow scientists to better compare Venus with other planets, including Earth, said Larry Esposito of the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.
Venus and Earth were similar at birth, but Venus turned into "Earth's evil twin" with harsh and inhospitable conditions, Esposito said.
The University of Arizona mission would send a spacecraft to a primitive asteroid and, for the first time, bring back a pristine sample from the surface to help better understand formation of the solar system, the university said in a statement.
The targeted asteroid "is a time capsule from before the birth of our solar system that records presolar history, the initial stages of planet formation and the sources of prebiotic organic compounds available for the origin of life," the university said.
The winning bid will be the third venture in NASA's New Frontiers program. The first mission, New Horizons, is expected to reach the Pluto-Charon system in about four years. The second, Juno, is expected to launch in 2011 and will explore Jupiter.