WASHINGTON — Regardless of whether NASA picks Venus, the Moon or an asteroid as the destination for its next $650 million New Frontiers mission, Lockheed Martin Space Systems will have a major role.

The Denver-based spacecraft builder is collaborating on all three one-year concept studies NASA awarded in December from among eight proposals submitted in July 2009 for the New Frontiers program, an effort to conduct frequent medium-class missions to planets, moons and near-Earth objects in the solar system. NASA gave $3.3 million to each of the three winners to complete concept study work in 2010, and the agency is expected to make its final selection in mid-2011. The winner must be ready to launch before 2019 for no more than $650 million, not including launch. Still in the running are proposals to probe the atmosphere and crust of Venus, return a piece of a near-Earth asteroid for analysis, and drop a robotic lander into a basin at the Moon’s south pole and return lunar rocks to Earth for study.

Steve Price, Lockheed Martin’s director of business development for sensing and exploration systems in Denver, said his division would rely on its experience in sample-return mission development to support each proposal. Price said that while each mission differs in terms of objectives and science goals, they share one thing in common: the need to protect a spacecraft during atmospheric entry.

“All three missions involve entry systems, which is something we have extensive mission experience in,” Price said in a Jan. 28 interview. Price cited the company’s involvement in all of NASA’s Mars missions to date, beginning with the Mariner 4 spacecraft, the first to orbit and take close-up pictures of the red planet in 1965, and the Viking 1 and Viking 2 landers, which were the first spacecraft to reach the surface of Mars in 1976. In addition, Lockheed Martin built the spacecraft and sample-return capsule for Stardust, NASA’s fourth Discovery-class mission, which returned comet and interstellar dust particles to Earth in 1999.

Under the New Frontiers lunar sample-return proposal, dubbed MoonRise, Lockheed would team with Washington University, St. Louis, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., to implement the lander’s flight system. Principle investigator Bradley Jolliff, a research professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Washington University, said the proposal would send an unmanned and robotically controlled lander to scoop up about 1 kilogram of pea-size lunar rocks and return them to Earth for further analysis. The mission would target the giant South Pole-Aitken Basin, which spans from edge to edge nearly 2,500 kilometers south of the Moon’s equator.

Jolliff said the South Pole-Aitken region could harbor rocks and melted material from deep in the Moon’s crust, which he said are not adequately represented in lunar samples returned by the Apollo missions. He said new samples from the crater could answer questions about the bombardment history of the Earth-Moon system during the first 600 million years of the history of our solar system during the early days of developing life on Earth.

“The importance of this really as a New Frontiers mission is that it’s not a mission just about the Moon, but about the history of this solar system,” said Jolliff, who is a co-investigator on NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s main camera currently mapping the Moon to allow future human and robotic probes to land safely on its surface. “This tremendous bombardment of impactors occurred, and we really need to understand the timing of this to fully appreciate the effect.”

Jolliff said the sample the MoonRise mission seeks to return would provide access to one of the remaining great unexplored regions of the Moon.

The multinational proposal includes the German Aerospace Center, DLR; Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College, London; and Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, which would develop camera systems for the spacecraft.

Lockheed Martin also would collaborate on the proposed New Frontiers Venus mission, dubbed Surface and Atmosphere Geochemical Explorer, or SAGE, developing a spacecraft carrier bus capable of entering Venus’ harsh atmosphere, which is filled with carbon dioxide gas and acid rain. Upon entry, the lander would descend onto the side of an active volcano, where instruments would dig down about 10 centimeters into the surface, zap the soil with two lasers and a vacuum tube that shoots pulses of neutrons and send data on surface composition and texture back to the lander.

SAGE principle investigator Larry Esposito of the University of Colorado, Boulder, would partner with JPL to lead the project, as well as NASA’s Ames Research Center, Mountain View, Calif.; NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.; and NASA’s Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va. The Canadian Space Agency would provide SAGE’s robotic arm for digging into the surface of Venus.

For the asteroid sample-return mission, known as the Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security-Regolith Explorer mission, a spacecraft would rendezvous with its target asteroid after roughly three years of cruising through space. The spacecraft would then spend several months gathering measurements and data from the asteroid and mapping its surface before gathering a sample and embarking on a 30-month journey home. Principle investigator Michael Drake, director of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona in Tucson, would team with Goddard to manage the project and develop some instruments. Other partners include Arizona State University in Tempe and the Canadian Space Agency.