NASA’s planetary missions fall into three categories of ambition and cost. At the high end at around $2-2.5 billion are the Flagship missions that use highly capable spacecraft for exploration that addresses a wide range of questions at the target world. These missions include the Curiosity Mars rover, its 2020 Mars rover sibling in development, and the planned Europa multi-flyby mission.
At the low end, at around $600 million, are the Discovery missions that conduct highly focused missions. Teams are free to propose missions to study any solar system body except the Sun and Earth (which are studied through other programs at NASA). Ten of these planetary missions have flown successfully and have included the MESSENGER spacecraft that orbited Mercury and the DAWN spacecraft that currently orbits the asteroid Ceres. Next up will be the 2018 InSight geophysical station for Mars to be followed by one or two missions to study either asteroids and/or Venus that will be selected by the end of the year.
At a total cost of somewhere around $1 billion, the New Frontiers missions fit between these two programs in ambition. The goal for these missions are to address focused high priority science questions. The scientific community selects the candidate themes through the Decadal Survey in which a long list of scientist-proposed ideas are vetted and prioritized.
The next New Frontiers mission will be selected from among a list of the six mission themes that the planetary science community identified as as highest priority to answer key questions about our solar system:
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