The New Frontiers program is a series of space exploration missions being conducted by NASA with the purpose of furthering the understanding of the Solar System. The program selects medium-class missions which can provide high science returns.
NASA is encouraging both domestic and international scientists to submit mission proposals for the program. New Frontiers was built on the innovative approach used by the Discovery and Explorer Programs of principal investigator-led missions. It is designed for medium-class missions that cannot be accomplished within the cost and time constraints of Discovery, but are not as large as Large Strategic Science Missions (Flagship missions).
There are currently three New Frontiers missions in progress and one in development. New Horizons, which was launched in 2006 and reached Pluto in 2015, Juno, which was launched in 2011 and entered Jupiter orbit in 2016, and OSIRIS-REx, launched in September 2016 towards asteroid Bennu for detailed studies from 2018 to 2021 and a sample return to Earth in 2023.
On June 27, 2019, Dragonfly was selected to become the fourth mission in the New Frontiers program.
The New Frontiers program was developed and advocated by NASA and granted by Congress in CY 2002 and 2003. This effort was led by two long-time NASA executives at headquarters at that time: Edward Weiler, Associate Administrator of Science, and Colleen Hartman, Solar System Exploration Division Director. The mission to Pluto had already been selected before this program was successfully endorsed and funded, so the mission to Pluto, called New Horizons, was "grandfathered" into the New Frontiers program.
The 2003 Planetary Science Decadal Survey from the National Academy of Sciences identified destinations that then served as the source of the first competition for the New Frontiers program. The NASA program name is based on President John F. Kennedy's "New Frontier" political agenda speech in 1960, in which he constantly used the words "New Frontier" to describe a variety of social issues and noted how pioneer exploration did not end with the American West as once thought. As President, Kennedy would also invest heavily in funding for NASA.
Examples of proposed mission concepts include two broad groups based on Planetary Science Decadal Survey goals.
Main article: New Horizons
New Horizons, a mission to Pluto, was launched on January 19, 2006. After a Jupiter gravity assist in February 2007 the spacecraft continued towards Pluto. The primary mission flyby occurred on July 14 2015 and the spacecraft was then targeted toward one Kuiper Belt object called 486958 Arrokoth for a January 1, 2019 flyby. Another mission that was considered with this mission was New Horizons 2.
Main article: Juno (spacecraft)
Juno is a Jupiter exploration mission which launched on August 5, 2011 and arrived in July 2016. It is the first solar-powered spacecraft to explore an outer planet. The craft was placed into a polar orbit in order to study the planet's magnetic field and internal structure. NASA's Galileo mission to Jupiter provided extensive knowledge about its upper atmosphere, however, further study of Jupiter is crucial not only to the understanding of its origin and nature of the Solar System, but also of giant extrasolar planets in general. The Juno spacecraft investigation is intended to address the following objectives for Jupiter:
Main article: OSIRIS-REx
OSIRIS-REx stands for "Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer", and was launched on 8 September 2016. This mission plan is to orbit an asteroid, at the time named 1999 RQ36 (now 101955 Bennu), by 2020. After extensive measurements, the spacecraft will collect a sample from the asteroid's surface for return to Earth in 2023. The mission, minus the cost of the launch vehicle ($183.5 million), is expected to cost approximately $800 million. The returned sample will help scientists answer long-held questions about the formation of the Solar System and the origin of complex organic molecules necessary for the origin of life.
Asteroid Bennu is a potential future Earth impactor and is listed on the Sentry Risk Table with the third highest rating on the Palermo Technical Impact Hazard Scale (circa 2015). In the late 2100s there is a cumulative chance of about 0.07% it could strike Earth, therefore there is a need to measure the composition and Yarkovsky effect of the asteroid.
Main article: Dragonfly (spacecraft)
Dragonfly will send a mobile robotic rotorcraft to Saturn's biggest moon Titan and will make use of Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (MMRTG) for power to navigate through the atmosphere of Titan. The development cost cap is approximately $1 billion. As of May 2021, Dragonfly is scheduled for launch in June 2027.
The competition for the fourth mission began in January 2017. Per recommendation by the Decadal Survey, NASA's announcement of opportunity was limited to six mission themes:
NASA received and reviewed 12 proposals:
Out of 12 initial proposals, NASA selected two for additional concept studies on 20 December 2017, including Dragonfly.
The two finalists, CAESAR and Dragonfly, each received $4 million funding through the end of 2018 to further develop and mature their concepts. On June 27, 2019, NASA announced the selection of Dragonfly as the New Frontiers 4 mission for a launch in 2026, later delayed to June 2027.
The Decadal Survey recommends that two New Frontiers missions be selected per decade. The 2018 Midterm Review of the 2013–2022 Decadal Survey found that NASA is falling behind on this cadence, and recommends the release of the New Frontiers 5 Announcement of Opportunity no later than December 2021. Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, responded positively to the Midterm Review's recommendation, stating that NASA is "committed to conducting two New Frontiers competitions per decade" and currently plans to release the Announcement of Opportunity in 2021 or 2022, though the Midterm Review estimates a release date as late as 2023.
The Decadal Survey recommended the Io Observer and Lunar Geophysical Network proposals for New Frontiers 5, in addition to the previous recommendations.
As of May 2021, NASA plans to release the New Frontiers 5 Announcement of Opportunity in 2024.