LAUREL, Md. — Competition for NASA’s fourth New Frontiers medium-sized robotic solar-system mission won’t start for at least a month, but the agency is planning to give some would-be competitors a head start with a small round of technology development funding.

By Sept. 30, NASA plans to award around eight so-called New Frontiers Homesteader awards, each of which will be worth about $1 million over two years, Curt Niebur, program scientist at NASA’s Washington headquarters, said here Aug. 24 during a presentation to the agency-chartered Outer Planets Advisory Group (OPAG).

“I need to get this money out the door ASAP,” said Niebur. The roughly $8 million for the awards is available in 2015 because the Osiris-Rex asteroid sample mission, NASA’s fourth New Frontiers mission, came in slightly under budget this year, Niebur said. Osiris-Rex, now under construction at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, will launch in 2016.

Only proposals for technology that can be used in missions to one of seven priority New Frontiers destinations are being considered for Homesteader awards, Niebur said. The late-September award will cap a quick two-step competition that began in May. There are 84 step-two finalists, so “the selection rate ain’t gonna be great,” Niebur said.

The Homesteader proposals that do get picked, however, might be able to make a “dramatic difference” for eventual New Frontiers proposals, Niebur said.

There is some room for mission-agnostic technology development in the Homesteader program. One example is an enhanced Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG): A more efficient version of the Plutonium-238-powered nuclear battery now used to power NASA missions that cannot rely on solar arrays.

The enhanced MMRTG isn’t ready for flight yet, but could nevertheless be a part of the next New Frontiers mission, Jim Green, NASA’s director of planetary science, told OPAG Aug. 24. Nuclear batteries make it easier to explore sunlight-deprived destinations such as the outer solar system. The Cassini orbiter at Saturn has one, as does the New Horizons  probe that flew by Pluto in July.

The next New Frontiers solicitation should hit the street in the government’s 2016 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, Green said. New Frontiers missions are led by a single principal investigator who is responsible for science and spacecraft development. The principal investigator’s budget does not include launch costs. The planetary science community asked for a $1 billion development cost-cap for New Frontiers in its last 10-year science roadmap, or decadal survey, but NASA has not decided whether to allow that. Osiris-Rex had an $800 million development cost cap.

The seven missions eligible for New Frontiers funding, according to the last planetary decadal survey, are:

  • Comet Surface Sample Return
  • Lunar South Pole-Aitken Basin Sample Return
  • Saturn Probe
  • Trojan Tour and Rendezvous
  • Venus In Situ Explorer
  • Io Observer
  • Lunar Geophysical Network

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.