WASHINGTON — NASA intends to spend $3.6 million to study a slate of competitively selected small mission concepts that would orbit Venus, return a sample from an asteroid, and study the interior structure and history of the Earth’s Moon, the U.S. space agency announced Oct. 30. The three mission concepts were selected from among roughly 24 proposals NASA received when it issued its Discovery Program announcement of opportunity in April 2006.

The selected teams must show NASA that their proposed missions can be developed within 36 months at a total cost of no more than $425 million, including launch, mission operations, and archiving and analyzing the data.

The three missions selected for concept studies are:

  • The Origins Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security mission, or OSIRIS for short. The University of Arizona, Tuscon-proposed mission would be managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md ., and survey an asteroid and return the first samples of asteroid surface materials to Earth.
  • A Venus atmospheric chemistry and dynamics orbiter dubbed Vesper proposed by Goddard.
  • The Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory, or GRAIL, a mission proposed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to make a high-quality gravity field map of the Moon to determine its interior structure. NASA’s Pasadena, Calif.-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory would manage the project.

NASA spokeswoman Erica Hupp said the three $1.2 million study contracts run seven months. She said the agency intends to select one of the missions in the Fall of 2007 to go forward for a launch that would occur between 2011 and 2013.

NASA also intends to spend $750,000 to further evaluate three so-called missions of opportunity that would make use of two existing NASA spacecraft that recently completely their primary science objectives.

The Deep Impact eXtended Investigation of Comets, proposed by the University of Maryland, College Park, would send the Deep Impact spacecraft to take pictures of the comet Boethin. A Goddard-led proposal would use Deep Impact’s high-resolution camera to search for Earth-sized planets around other stars.

A third proposed mission of opportunity would use NASA’s Stardust spacecraft to fly by comet Tempel 1 and observe the changes that have occurred since Deep Impact fired an a projectile into Tempel 1 in 2005.

Tempel 1 has since made its closest approach to the sun and the scientists at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., proposing the mission of opportunity are interested in seeing how the comet’s surface might have changed. Missions of opportunity have a cost cap of $35 million.