NASA's next frontier: Venus, the moon or an asteroid?

Space agency plans to choose between three potential missions by mid-2011

NASA is in the process of deciding on the focus of its next major space venture, which would cost about $650 million and take about eight years.

The U.S. space agency announced late last week that it has narrowed the field of potential missions to three; probing Venus' atmosphere and crust; sending a probe to a near-earth asteroid to gather material and bring it back to earth for analysis; or sending a NASA robotic lander to the moon to capture and return lunar rocks to earth for study.

NASA said it will decide on the mission by mid-2011. The agency noted that the selected mission must be ready for launch no later than Dec. 30, 2018 and must ring in at $650 million or less excluding the cost of the launch vehicle.

"These are projects that inspire and excite young scientists, engineers and the public," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, in a statement. "These three proposals provide the best science value among eight submitted to NASA this year."

NASA said the teams proposing the three missions will each get $3.3 million in federal monies to fund concept studies.

The Venus probe was proposed by a research team from the University of Colorado in Boulder. The proposal calls for the probe to measure Venus' atmospheric composition during its descent, and to measure soil composition and mineralogy after landing on the surface.

A team from the University of Arizona in Tucson proposed sending a spacecraft to a near-Earth asteroid to help scientists in studying the formation of the universe and the origin of molecules necessary for life, according to NASA. The University of Artizona plan calls for a spacecraft, called Osiris-Rex, to land on an asteroid where its instruments and tools would collect about two ounces of material to bring back to Earth for analysis.

A team at Washington University in St. Louis proposed sending a robotic lunar lander to touch down on the south pole of the moon to collect and bring back about two pounds of material. Researchers are hoping this mission would provide clues about the early history of the Earth and the moon, NASA noted.

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