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Discovery Program 
STARDUST is the fourth NASA Discovery mission to be chosen. It follows Mars Pathfinder, the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR), and the Lunar Prospector missions. The goal of NASA's Discovery Program is to launch many smaller missions that perform focused science with fast turn-around times, cost less than $183 (FY97$) million to build, and are joint efforts with industry, small businesses, and universities. 

The Discovery Program represents the implementation of NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin's vision of "Faster, Better, Cheaper" planetary missions. This new way of doing business is a significant departure from recent planetary missions and is part of NASA's attempt to streamline and downsize to meet the constraints of post-Cold War budgets.

Discovery Missions

To date six Discovery Missions have been selected and funded. These are:
1. NEAR (Asteroid rendezvous) JHU/APL
2. Pathfinder (Mars lander) JPL
3. Lunar Prospector (Moon orbiter) Lunar Research Inst., NASA/ARC, LMMS, Sunnyvale
4. STARDUST (Comet dust sample return) Univ of Wash., JPL, LM Astronautics, Denver
5. Genesis (Solar Wind particle sample return) Cal Tech, JPL, LM Astronautics, Denver
6. CONTOUR (Comet nucleus tour - 3 comets) Cornell Univ., JHU/APL

The first Discovery mission to be launched was the NEAR (Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous) mission, which will rendezvous with the asteroid Eros on January 10, 1999. NEAR has a major complement of imagers and spectrometers with which to characterize the nature of this asteroid. It will be the first mission to rendezvous with a small body.

The Pathfinder mission to Mars, with its Sojourner rover, is also a Discovery-class mission. Pathfinder was a world-wide news event because of its unique, new landing system and the first-ever operation of a robotic rover on the red planet.

Lunar Prospector, the long-awaited science mission since the Apollo astronauts roamed the lunar surface, is currently operational around the moon. It was launched on January 6th, 1998. Prospector has discovered apparent deposits of ice just below the surface at both the north and south poles of the moon, using instruments which measure composition

STARDUST is the first Discovery mission to undergo the full rounds of two-step competition. It was selected from a field of 33 proposed planetary science missions. STARDUST will perform many "Firsts" for NASA (see FAQ on this web site).

Genesis and CONTOUR were selected in the next round of Discovery missions, as Discovery-5 and Discovery-6, respectively. Genesis will collect matter from the sun by propulsing to the L1 Lagrange point, where the Earth's and the Sun's gravity cancel one another, and exposing ultrahigh purity silicon and other collectors for two years to the solar wind. At the end of its 3-year mission, Genesis will return to Earth with precious samples of the sun to be analyzed in laboratories around the world. From this, the starting atomic and isotopic composition of the solar nebula, and by inference, of the planets, will be determined. These data will allow sophisticated studies of the formation of planets, comets and asteroids.

CONTOUR will perform flyby missions at two and possibly a third comet. The first comet encounter will be with comet Encke in November 2003. The objective is to study the diversity of comets, which exhibit a variety of traits as determined so-far by telescopic observations from Earth. CONTOUR flies the identical CIDA dust composition experiment as STARDUST, plus high resolution spectral imagers and a gas composition experiment.

NEAR, Mars Pathfinder, and Lunar Prospector have all been launched on time and under budget. STARDUST is slated for a February 1999 launch; Genesis is scheduled for launch in early 2001; and CONTOUR will launch in the summer of 2002.

The selection process for a 7th Discovery Mission is currently under way.


Webmaster: Tom Meyer
Last Updated Wednesday, 26-Nov-2003 12:46:43 PST