NASA will spend $10 million in 2010 studying three competing proposals for missions that would probe the atmosphere and crust of Venus, drop a robotic lander into a south-pole basin on the Moon or return samples from a near-Earth asteroid, the U.S. space agency announced Dec. 29.

The three finalists, picked from among proposals scientists sent in last summer in response to NASA’s first New Frontiers solicitation since 2003, will be given 12 months and $3.3 million to show that their missions can be ready to launch no later than Dec. 30, 2018, for no more than $650 million, not including the launch vehicle.

The finalists are: The University of Colorado, Boulder’s Surface and Atmosphere Geochemical Explorer, or SAGE, mission to Venus; the University of Arizona in Tucson’s asteroid-bound Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer, or Osiris-Rex, mission; and Washington University’s MoonRise lunar sample-return mission. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory would manage the Venus and Moon missions, while the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center would manage the asteroid mission.

NASA intends to make its final selection in mid-2011.