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NASA selects finalists for next Discovery mission

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(CNN) -- NASA has narrowed the choices for an upcoming Discovery space exploration mission to three proposals: a space telescope that would search for terrestrial planets, a probe that could look inside the gas-shrouded depths of Jupiter and a spacecraft that would orbit two giant asteroids.

The space agency, which announced the finalists on Friday, will admittedly have a hard time selecting only one of the missions, which each have a price tag slightly under $300 million.

"The diversity of science represented in these three missions proposals is outstanding. NASA will have its hands full picking only one for flight," said Jay Bergstralh, the acting director of solar system exploration for NASA, in a statement.

The three mission concepts are:

  • Kepler Mission: A space telescope to search for planets the size of Earth around nearby stars. The Kepler observatory could detect up to 500 terrestrial-sized planets by monitoring 100,000 stars over five years, according to NASA researchers.


  • INSIDE Jupiter: The Interior Structure and Internal Dynamic Evolution (INSIDE) probe would orbit Jupiter and measure processes within the jovian atmosphere. The spacecraft would also make high-resolution maps of the gas giant's magnetic and gravity fields.


  • Dawn Mission: This robot ship would orbit Vesta and Ceres, two of the largest asteroids in the solar system. Scientists speculate the two space rocks have extremely different properties because they formed in different parts of the solar system. A coordinated study could shed light on how our planetary neighborhood evolved.

Chosen from 26 proposals submitted last August, the trio of projects will each receive $450,000 for feasibility studies, according to NASA. The final winner will be selected in less than a year and should launch by 2006.

NASA solicited the proposals through its Discovery program, a series of lower-cost, rapid development scientific missions meant to study objects in our solar system and search other star systems for planets.

The first Discovery mission, the NEAR (Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous) spacecraft, launched in 1996 and has orbited the asteroid Eros for almost one year.

Other Discovery projects include the Mars Pathfinder probe, which landed on the red planet; the Stardust and Contour spacecraft, currently in deep space to study comets and interstellar debris; and the Genesis robot ship, which will approach the sun for an extended scientific "sunbathing" trip.



RELATED STORIES:
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November 28, 2000
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RELATED SITES:
NASA
NASA Discovery Program
Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous Mission
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Kepler Mission


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