A Cornell-led project is one of two finalists contending for nearly one billion dollars of NASA funding for a universe exploration mission to be launched in the mid-2020s.
The proposed Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return mission, abbreviated as CAESAR, is a 20-year project that would sample the core of a comet as an astrobiological sample for insight on the formation of Earth as well as the foundations of organic material in the universe.
“What we’re trying to do is for the first time get a piece of a comet and bring it back to Earth,” said Prof. Steven Squyres ’78 Ph.D. ’81, the James A. Weeks Professor of Physical Sciences. “[We’ll] get it into the best laboratories on Earth, and analyze it to help understand both the solar system and the origins of life.”
Squyres pulled together a team of partners, including the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and the Japanese Space Agency and spent three years drafting a detailed proposal outlining the mission. The proposal was submitted in April 2017 to the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA)’s New Frontiers Program, which funds large-scale universe exploration missions.
The typical cost of these missions is about one billion dollars after operational fees, according to Squyres. After months of reviewing 12 total proposals, NASA selected the CAESAR mission to be one of two finalists for further review. The final decision will be made in the summer of 2019.
“The whole crazy thing popped into my head about four years ago,” said Squyres. “No one has ever gotten their hands on a piece of a comet. The reason that its important to science is that comets are the most primitive stuff from which the solar system was made.”
After the sample of the comet is brought back, researchers will analyze it down to the molecular level for information on how much water was brought to Earth on comets and if or to what degree the creation of organic material on the planet was also dependent on the celestial bodies.
“The science of CAESAR is the Carl Sagan quote: ‘we’re all made of star stuff,’” said Prof. Alexander Hayes ’03 M.Eng. ’03. “[With this mission] we’ll rewrite the textbooks on the knowledge of the starting point for the solar system.”
The team has testable hypotheses about the origin of the solar system and the prebiotic chemistry that led to the evolution and origin of life, as well as set of experiments for each one, according to Hayes. This will also involve investigating how much of prebiotic development occurred in solar nebulae before materials arrived on Earth.
Though the proposed mission would be slated for launch in 2024, the sample would not return home until 2038. With this in mind, the project was constructed differently from most missions.
“The mission is a 20-year endeavor, so there needs to be a succession plan, and the succession plan stays within Cornell,” said Hayes. “There are mentor-mentee relationships throughout the project.”
The most prominent of these involves Squyres and Hayes. After the launch in 2024, Squyres will retire and Hayes will take over as principal investigator.
“I started here [at Cornell] as an undergraduate working for [Squyres]. Now I’m back as faculty working with him,” said Hayes.
However, the multigenerational model extends beyond the role of principal investigator.
“There are similar relationships in other roles throughout the project, where we have a younger, early-career or mid-career scientist paired with a more senior scientist, who’s going to work with them through the development phase and then transition the roles,” said Hayes.
The project’s timeline anticipates significant advancement in technology in the 20 years before tests can be run, said Squyres.
“We have to demonstrate in our proposal that the technology of today can answer the questions we’re interested in, but when we actually bring the sample back we’ll be using the technology of tomorrow,” said Hayes.
The particular comet to be sampled was also the focal point of the European Space Agency’s prior Rosetta mission, and is the only comet that has been studied in detail by a spacecraft mission, according to Hayes. This allowed the project to cut costs on diagnostic tests and focus on bringing the sample home.
CAESAR’s competition, Dragonfly, is a drone-like rotorcraft designed to explore sites on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, according to NASA’s website. Dragonfly is led by Elizabeth Turtle from the Applied Physics Laboratory at the Johns Hopkins University.
“This is something that I think is going to be a big deal for Cornell,” said Squyres. “Cornell has been a leading institution in the exploration of planets going back decades.”