NASA recently announced that it has selected four science investigations as a step in choosing one or two missions for flight opportunities in the 2020’s as part of its Discovery program. Among these are the Trident and DAVINCI+ mission concepts. Trident’s Principal Investigator is the Universities Space Research Association’s (USRA) Louise Prockter, Director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute. A co-investigator is USRA Staff Scientist at LPI, Dr. Paul Schenk. USRA scientists Walter Kiefer and Justin Filiberto, also from the at LPI, are co-investigators on DAVINCI+. 

“The USRA team is thrilled to play such a significant role in two of the four selected missions for Phase A of NASA’s Discovery Program. We look forward with great anticipation to working with the other team members to advance the scientific and technical maturity of these missions during Phase A,” noted Ghassem Asrar, Senior Vice President, Science, at USRA. 

The goal of NASA’s Discovery Program is to address pressing questions in planetary science and increase our understanding of our solar system, and the latest four missions selected focus on compelling destinations and science questions that are not covered by NASA’s active and planned missions. At the conclusion of the upcoming study, next year, only one or two of the four missions will be selected for development and launch. Each of the four nine-month studies, which also include the Io Volcanic Observer (IVO), and the Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy (VERITAS) mission, will receive $3 million to develop and mature concepts and will conclude with a Concept Study Report. 

“These selected missions have the potential to transform our understanding of some of the solar system’s most active and complex worlds,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “Exploring any one of these celestial bodies will help unlock the secrets of how it, and others like it, came to be in the cosmos.”

The Trident mission would explore Triton, a unique and highly active icy moon of Neptune, to understand pathways to habitable worlds at tremendous distances from the Sun. NASA’s Voyager 2 mission showed that Triton has active resurfacing — generating the second youngest surface in the solar system — with erupting plumes and an atmosphere. Coupled with an ionosphere that can create organic snow and the potential for an interior ocean, Triton is an exciting exploration target for understanding how habitable worlds may develop in our solar system and others. Using a single flyby, TRIDENT would map Triton, characterize active processes, and determine whether the predicted subsurface ocean exists. The Trident Mission proposal is led by USRA’s Louise Prockter, Director, Lunar Planetary Institute (LPI). USRA’s Paul Schenk, also with LPI, is a co-investigator. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, would provide project management, Ball Aerospace would build the spacecraft, and international partners would include the Italian Space Agency and the Swedish Institute of Space Physics.

DAVINCI+ (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging Plus) will analyze Venus’ atmosphere to understand how it formed, evolved and determine whether Venus ever had an ocean. DAVINCI+ plunges through Venus’ inhospitable atmosphere to precisely measure its composition down to the surface. The instruments are encapsulated within a purpose-built descent sphere to protect them from the intense environment of Venus. The “+” in DAVINCI+ refers to the imaging component of the mission, which includes cameras on the descent sphere and orbiter designed to map surface rock-type. The results from DAVINCI+ have the potential to reshape our understanding of terrestrial planet formation in our solar system and beyond. James Garvin, Chief Scientist of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is the Principal Investigator. Additionally, Universities Space Research Association’s scientists at LPI, Justin Filiberto and Walter Kiefer, are co-investigators on the DAVINCI + mission proposal. NASA GSFC would provide project management for DAVINCI+.

The selected missions will be managed by the Planetary Missions Program Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the Discovery Program. The Discovery Program conducts space science investigations in the Planetary Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, guided by NASA’s agency priorities and the Decadal Survey process of the National Academy of Sciences.

Established in 1992, NASA’s Discovery Program ( has supported the development and implementation of over 20 missions and instruments. These selections are part of the ninth Discovery Program competition.