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PSI On Two Missions Receiving NASA Concept Development Funding

Dec. 20, 2017

Tucson, Ariz. -- Planetary Science Institute scientists are involved in both missions selected by NASA Wednesday to receive concept development funding to robotically explore the Solar System. 

Missions selected were Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return (CAESAR), a mission to return a sample from the nucleus of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and Dragonfly, a drone-like rotorcraft lander that would explore the prebiotic chemistry and habitability of dozens of sites on Saturn’s moon Titan. 

One of the missions will be selected in 2019 for flight, with launch expected to be in the mid-2020s. 

PSI Senior Scientists Robert Gaskell and Eric Palmer will be Co-Investigators on CAESAR. They will be responsible for providing shape models of the comet for the mission’s navigation team. The CAESAR sample will reveal how these materials contributed to the early Earth, including the origins of the Earth's oceans, and of life. 

PSI Senior Scientists R. Aileen Yingst and Research Scientist Catherine Neish will be Co-Investigators on the Dragonfly mission that will sample materials and determine surface composition to investigate Titan's organic chemistry and habitability, monitor atmospheric and surface conditions, image landforms to investigate geological processes, and perform seismic studies. Neish will study Titan’s geology, with a particular focus on impact cratering, volcanism, and aqueous surface chemistry. Yingst will research what geologic processes have been – and currently are – active on Titan. 

Elizabeth Turtle, lead investigator on Dragonfly, worked at PSI from 2002-2006 and is now at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. 

The CAESAR and Dragonfly missions will receive NASA funding through the end of 2018 to further develop and mature their concepts. The selected mission will be the fourth in NASA’s New Frontiers portfolio, a series planetary science investigations that fall under a development cost cap of approximately $850 million. 

PSI Senior Scientist Amanda Hendrix, whose book “Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets” looks at the challenges of spaceflight and Titan as a human destination, said, “I am very excited about the Dragonfly concept. Titan is such a fascinating and Earth-like world, with its thick atmosphere, weather and surface liquids. I like that Dragonfly takes advantage of the Titan environment, namely the low gravity and thick atmosphere, to explore multiple sites across the diverse world. The Huygens probe gave us a first tantalizing glimpse of the surface of Titan, and I’m eager to see more.” 

Visit for an illustration of the Dragonfly mission to Titan.

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