NASA Discovery Program – 4 Bids to Explore Solar System

The NASA Discovery Program uses a bidding competition to choose between space exploration proposals. Find out what the final four teams hope to achieve.

I was a teenager in the 70s and it was a great time to be a fan of space exploration. We watched six successful moon landings, as well as the brave recovery of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission.

After that, we saw images of Jupiter, Saturn and their moons from Pioneer 10 and 11. Viking 1 and 2 showed us the first images of the surface of Mars.

Later, the two Voyager spacecraft sent back images of all of the planets in the outer solar system and many of their moons. We started to think of the solar system as our own backyard.


NASA has continued to explore the solar system on a more modest scale since then, and so have space agencies from other countries. Despite this, the thrill of the heyday of planetary missions has faded quite a bit over the last four decades.

It was oddly sad when the two Voyager spacecraft left the solar system and travelled on to explore interstellar space as best they could. After forty years, it was like seeing off an old friend who was moving to a distant country.

Since 1992. NASA has been running contests, not unlike the reality shows Dragon’s Den or Shark Tank. It’s called the NASA Discovery Program.


The NASA Discovery Program has supported 20 missions and instruments proposed through bidding processes over the years. The goal of the program is ” to address pressing questions in planetary science and increase our understanding of our solar system.”

NASA is working on its ninth Discovery Program competition and it has some fascinating proposed missions for its Planetary Science Division to choose from. At this point, they’ve narrowed it down to four bids, each with a cost cap of $500 million.

They probably won’t all get the green light, at least for now. NASA is being a bit coy, but it sounds like they intend to choose just two finalists.


The NASA Discovery Program selected the four semi-finalists based on the degree to which their proposals involved “compelling targets and science.” NASA evaluated each proposal’s, “potential science value and feasibility of development plans”.

They judge this based on NASA’s own priorities and a survey process at the National Academy of Sciences. We’ll find out who gets the go-ahead sometime next year.

Thomas Zurbuchen is the associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. He’s pleased with the selection process, saying, “These selected missions have the potential to transform our understanding of some of the solar system’s most active and complex worlds.”


In the next step, each of the bidders will get $3 million in seed money to flesh out their ideas and write up a Concept Study Report. NASA will go through each report and choose the finalists from there.

Let’s take a look at the four bids that are still on the table. These are in no particular order.


Readers know that I’m not a big fan of acronyms, but in this case, I”ll make an exception, because the mission title from the Goddard Space Flight Center is a mouthful. DaVinci+ stands for, “Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging Plus.” The bidder is the Goddard Space Flight Center.

In a previous story, we talked about how so much attention has been focused on Mars while , missions to Venus, which is also very similar to Earth, may have been short-changed. The proponents hope to change all that by analyzing Venus’ hot, thick, toxic atmosphere.

They also want to find out if Venus ever had an ocean. The spacecraft will be similar to Apollo, with an orbiter and a descent sphere.

The “plus” in the mission title is because they’ve added an imaging component. Both the orbiter and the descent sphere will have cameras that can map the rocky surface of Venus, which is hidden under its dense, cloudy atmosphere.

DaVinci wouldn’t just tell us more about Venus. It could very well improve our understanding of how earthlike planets form, both here in the solar system and around other suns.


There’s another bid to go to Venus and its mission title is also a mouthful. It’s Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory wants to find out why Venus turned out so differently from Earth when in some ways they’re quite similar. They also plan to map Venus’ surface, which has been hard to do up until now because of the thick atmosphere.

Using a special kind of radar, VERITAS would measure the elevations of everything on the surface of Venus. It would pull this together into a topographical map of practically the whole planet.

VERITAS would study the planet’s features, which we still don’t know much about, in another way. It would pick up infrared signals from the surface to supplement the radar surveys.

They want to understand the geography of Venus better. They would see whether the plates in the planet’s crust still move around as they do on Earth and if Venus has any active volcanoes.

Io Volcano Observer (IVO)

Io is one of Jupiter’s moons. It’s also the most volcanically active world in our solar system. Jupiter’s gravity and tidal action are so intense that they actually generate heat on Io.

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory thinks we should find out more about Io’s volcanic activity. For instance, is there an ocean of magma under the surface that flows up through Io’s 400 volcanoes?

IVO would use close-in fly-by maneuvers to gather data on how earthlike bodies like Io form with icy oceans. This knowledge would be equally valuable for studying planets both inside and outside our solar system.


The Jet Propulsion Laboratory would also like to explore a moon. They’re targeting Triton, which orbits the planet Neptune.

Triton is a fairly big moon, in fact it’s bigger than Pluto. It’s also very bright, reflecting far more light than our own moon.

Triton’s surface is mainly ice. It doesn’t have many craters, which tells us that its surface must be fairly new. Geysers erupt on Triton’s surface, shooting up nitrogen gas that turns into vapour straight from solid ice.

Triton also has organic snow and many scientists think there might be an ocean under all that ice. Exploring Triton is another chance to learn more about how planets form in the solar system and elsewhere.

TRIDENT would do everything in one pass of Triton. This includes mapping it, studying its geological processes and confirming if it really does have an ocean.


Ironically, even though we’ve discovered more than 4,000 exoplanets, we don’t know as much as we’d like to about our neighbours here in our own solar system. Whichever missions end up being chosen, we’ll get the opportunity to find out more about planets and where they come from.

To find meaning in our lives, we need a story we can all believe in about where our Earth came from and how other worlds form. The goals of each of these missions can move us closer to that knowledge.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn more:
Scientific Goals for Exploration of the Outer Solar System
Planets From From Stardust – Rapidly and Frequently
Why Mars? Why Not Life on Venus?
LightSail2: Come Sail Away


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