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NASA's Discovery Program is a series of lower-cost, highly focused scientific space missions. It was founded to implement NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin's vision of "faster, better, cheaper" planetary missions. Discovery missions differ from traditional NASA mission where targets and objectives are pre-specified, instead, these missions are proposed by any organization while costs are capped. Proposing organizations may be teams of people in the industry, small businesses, government laboratories, and universities, and led by a Principal Investigator (PI). Proposals are then selected through a competitive peer review process. Development time of missions from start to launch cannot be longer than 36 months. Currently, for the 2006 Announcement of Opportunity, the cost is capped at $425 million.
Successfully completed missions
- NEAR Shoemaker, a mission to study asteroid 433 Eros. It has succeeded its primary and extended mission and is now defunct, having successfully landed on surface of Eros.
- Mars Pathfinder, a Mars lander to deploy a miniature rover on the surface. It has completed its primary and extended mission and is now defunct.
- Lunar Prospector, a Moon orbiter to characterize the lunar mineralogy. It has completed its primary and extended mission and deliberately impacted onto the Moon's surface.
- Deep Impact, a mission in which a spacecraft released an impactor into the path of comet Tempel 1. After the successful completion of its mission, it was put in hibernation, and then reactived for an extended mission designated EPOXI.
- Stardust, a mission to collect samples from the tail of comet 81P/Wild. It has successfully collected its samples, and returned those samples to Earth on January 15, 2006. The spacecraft has been put into hibernation and remains in orbit around the Sun. It is still functional and is being used for the NExT extended mission.
Partially successful missions
- Genesis, a mission to collect solar wind particles. It successfully did so, but the return capsule's parachute failed to deploy and crashed into the Utah desert. Some solar ion samples were salvaged and are now available for study. Genesis is currently headed towards the Earth-Sun Lagrange Point (L1) while NASA debates sending Genesis on an extended mission. .
- CONTOUR, a mission to visit and study comets Encke and Schwassmann-Wachmann-3. It was launched from Cape Canaveral on July 3, 2002. On August 15, contact with the craft was lost. Subsequent investigation revealed that it broke into at least three pieces, the cause likely being structural failure during the rocket motor burn that was to push it from Earth orbit into a solar orbit.
Missions in progress
- MESSENGER, a mission to study and map the planet Mercury from orbit; launched on 3 August 2004, and currently completing a series of flybys on the way to establishing orbit around the planet in March of 2011.
- Dawn, a mission to study the dwarf planet Ceres and large asteroid Vesta; launched on 27 September 2007.
- Kepler, a space telescope mission to continuously observe 100,000 stars in a fixed field of view in order to detect transits by exoplanets orbiting those stars; launched on 7 March 2009 and successfully completed commissioning on 13 May 2009.
Missions of opportunity
- ASPERA-3, a NASA designed instrument designed to study the interaction between the solar wind and the atmosphere of Mars, and is on board the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter. It was procured as a 'Discovery Mission of Opportunity', which is chance to participate in non-NASA missions by providing funding for a science instrument, hardware components of a science instrument, or expertise in critical areas of a mission.
- Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3), a NASA designed instrument to be placed on board the ISRO's Chandrayaan orbiter. It is designed to explore the moon's mineral composition at high resolution. It was procured as a 'Discovery Mission of Opportunity'.
- Extrasolar Planet Observation and Deep Impact Extended Investigation (EPOXI) is a series of two new extended missions for the existing Deep Impact probe following its success at Tempel 1:
- The Deep Impact eXtended Investigation of Comets (DIXI) mission uses the existing Deep Impact spacecraft for an extended flyby mission to a second comet, originally planned as a flyby of Comet Boethin, but which has now been retargeted to Comet Hartley 2. The goal is to take pictures of its nucleus to increase our understanding of the diversity of comets. This was selected by NASA in 2007. Michael A'Hearn of the University of Maryland, College Park, Md., is DIXI's principal investigator. The flyby of Hartley 2 is scheduled for 2010-10-11.
- The Extrasolar Planet Observations and Characterization (EPOCh) mission uses the high-resolution camera on the Deep Impact spacecraft to better characterize known giant extrasolar planets orbiting other stars, and to search for additional planets in the same system. L. Drake Deming of Goddard is EPOCh's principal investigator.
- New Exploration of Tempel 1 (NExT) is a new mission for the Stardust spacecraft to flyby comet Tempel 1 in 2011 and observe changes since the Deep Impact mission visited it in 2005. In 2005, Tempel 1 has made its closest approach to the sun, possibly changing the surface of the comet. Joseph Veverka of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., is NExT's principal investigator.
- GRAIL, the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory mission will use high-quality gravity field mapping of the Moon to determine its interior structure.
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Published - July 2009
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