As part of its Discovery Program, NASA has selected three potential missions for 2016 that would look at Mars' interior for the first time; study an extraterrestrial ocean on one of Saturn's moons; and study in unprecedented detail the surface of a comet's nucleus. Three technology developments for future planetary missions also were selected. Among them was Whipple, a mission proposed by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).
"We look forward to developing and proving the technologies that will make Whipple successful in the next round of evaluation, and ultimately as a working mission," said Charles Alcock, CfA director and principal investigator of Whipple.
The Whipple mission is designed to explore the most distant reaches of our solar system, where icy objects float in a perpetual deep-freeze. A dim Sun billions of miles away sheds little light on the residents of this region. As a result, they are difficult to detect directly against the inky blackness of interstellar space.
Whipple will hunt for these hidden chunks of ice and dust by trying to spot their shadows. It will monitor tens of thousands of stars, watching for one of them to wink out when an otherwise unseen object slips in front of the star from the spacecraft's point of view.
Whipple should be able to detect objects between half a mile and 6 miles across, orbiting the Sun at distances up to 2 trillion miles. (In comparison, Neptune orbits about 3 billion miles away - almost 1,000 times closer than some objects Whipple will find.)
During the next several years, selected teams will receive funding to bring their respective technologies to a higher level of readiness. To be considered for flight, teams must demonstrate progress in a future mission proposal competition.
Created in 1992, the Discovery Program sponsors frequent, cost-capped solar system exploration missions with highly focused scientific goals. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the program for the agency's Science Mission Directorate.
For more information about the latest Discovery Program selections, visit http://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2011/may/HQ_11-132_Future_Plantary.html
Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.