New Frontiers Program


The New Frontiers Program represents a pivotal step in the advancement of solar system exploration. The missions in the program tackle specific solar system exploration goals identified as top priorities by consensus of the planetary community.


The New Frontiers strategy is to explore the solar system with frequent, medium-class spacecraft missions that conduct high-quality, focused scientific investigations designed to enhance our understanding of the solar system. The program objective is to launch high-science-return planetary investigations on an average of one every 36 months. Added to the NASA budget for the first time in 2003, New Frontiers builds on the innovative approaches used in NASA's Discovery and Explorer Programs, but provides a mechanism for identifying and selecting missions that cannot be accomplished within the cost and time constraints of Discovery.



The New Frontiers Program is committed to enhancing public awareness and appreciation for space exploration and engaging the public in the process of scientific discovery. NASA's science missions make a unique contribution to education by sharing the story, the science, and the adventure of NASA's scientific explorations. One to two percent of the cost for each mission is allocated to education and public outreach activities that feature the science of the mission and its discoveries to enhance learning at all levels.


The explorations of the New Frontiers missions to seek new knowledge provide an inspirational spark to involve students in exciting hands-on science, engineering, technology, and mathematics (STEM) opportunities designed for both the formal classroom and for informal out-of-school time programs. All the missions work with educators to identify and meet their needs with a variety of STEM curricula and activities for students in K-12.

First Decadal Study

The first study to identify high priority goals, "New Frontiers in the Solar System: An Integrated Exploration Strategy" published in 2003, formed the basis for NASA's New Frontiers Program of planetary science missions. The study was conducted by the Space Studies Board of the National Research Council at NASA's request. It canvased planetary science activities, listed the key science questions, and recommended specific spacecraft missions for the period 2003-2013.

The study identified four cross-cutting themes that form the basis for an integrated exploration strategy:

  • The First Billion Years of Solar System History
  • Volatiles And Organics: The Stuff of Life
  • The Origin and Evolution of Habitable Worlds
  • Processes: How Planetary Systems Work

Twelve key scientific questions emerged from these themes, and five high priority scientific goals were identified, relating to the exploration of Pluto and other Kuiper Belt Objects, Jupiter, Venus, the south polar region of the Earth’s Moon, and a comet sample return. These priorities became the criteria for missions in the New Frontiers Program. 

Kuiper Belt Pluto Explorer

Kuiper Belt Pluto Explorer

An exploration of Pluto and its moon Charon and other Kuiper belt objects will allow scientists to determine their chemical compositions, physical characteristics, and impact histories.

New Horizons, the first mission selected for the New Frontiers Program, launched in 2006 and will fly by the Pluto system in 2015. Since launch, three more moons have been discovered, and there are hints that two more might exist. After the encounter with Pluto, the spacecraft will continue its journey to the distant Kuiper Belt for encounters with icy Kuiper Belt Objects from 2016-2020.

Jupiter Polar Orbiter with Probes

Jupiter Polar Orbiter with Probes

Jupiter's origin and evolution had a major effect on the development of the rest of the solar system, including the potentially habitable environments of the terrestrial planets. Understanding Jupiter's internal structure, water abundance, and deep atmospheric composition is a key to unlocking the origin of life and to understanding the dynamics of solar systems in general.

Juno, the second New Frontiers mission, launched in 2011 and will arrive at Jupiter in 2016 for its year-long orbital mission. The spacecraft will skim to within 3,100 miles above the planet's cloud tops, collecting data to improve our understanding of the solar system's beginnings by revealing the origin, evolution, and structure of Jupiter.

Venus in Situ Explorer

Venus in Situ Explorer

Examine the physics and chemistry of Venus's atmosphere and crust. Characterize variables that cannot be measured from orbit, including the composition of the lower atmosphere and the elemental and mineralogical composition of surface materials.

Lunar South Pole-Aitken Basin Sample Return Mission

Lunar South Pole-Aitken Basin Sample Return Mission

Return samples from this ancient, deeply excavated impact basin to Earth for characterization and study to learn about the composition and formation of the Moon and the history of the Earth-Moon system.

Comet Surface Sample Return Mission

Comet Surface Sample Return Mission

Acquire and return to Earth a macroscopic sample from the surface of a comet nucleus, preserving organic material in the sample. Further our understanding of the distribution of volatiles and organics in the solar system and how organic material is transported throughout the solar system.

Second Decadal Study

In 2008, NASA requested that a new study be initiated in response to the successful implementation of two of the recommended missions, along with important discoveries made by ground- and space-based research activities. The National Research Council appointed a 16-member committee steering group and 54 experts who served on five topical panels. After extensive efforts, the panels identified 24 priority missions capable of addressing key scientific questions. These mission concepts were subjected to detailed technical studies and evaluation of cost and technical realism.

A second study was completed in 2011, Vision and Voyages for Planetary Science in the Decade 2013-2022. Complete information on the Planetary Science Decadal Survey is available, including panel members and meetings, presentations, and NASA's response.

To help organize the current state of knowledge, the committee identified three crosscutting themes and ten important questions that cover major areas of planetary science research:
  • Building New Worlds: Understanding Solar System Beginnings
  • Planetary Habitats: Searching for the Requirements for Life
  • Workings of Solar Systems: Revealing Planetary Processes through Time

The recommendations for the New Frontiers Program include seven missions that address high priority and technically complex science goals. The committee recommended changing the New Frontiers cost cap to $1.0 billion FY'15, excluding launch vehicle costs.

The seven candidate missions include the three previously identified but not selected plus four new ones:

IO Observer

Io Observer

Determine the internal structure of Io and investigate the mechanisms that contribute to the satellite's intense volcanic activity from a highly elliptical orbit around Jupiter, making multiple fly bys of Io.

Lunar Geophysical Network

Lunar Geophysical Network

Distribute several identical landers across the lunar surface, each carrying geophysical instrumentation. Primary science objectives are to characterize the Moon's internal structure, seismic activity, global heat flow budget, bulk composition, and magnetic field.

Saturn Probe

Saturn Probe

Deploy a probe into Saturn's atmosphere to determine the structure of the atmosphere as well as noble gas abundances and isotopic ratios of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen.

Trojan Tour and Rendezvous

Trojan Tour and Rendezvous

Examine two or more small bodies sharing the orbit of Jupiter, including one or more fly bys followed by an extended rendezvous with a Trojan object.

NASA's Science Goals

The Solar System Exploration Roadmap developed in 2006 for NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD) lays out both a scientific rationale and a long–term plan for the exploration of the solar system. The scientific foundation of the Roadmap is a set of five fundamental questions:

  1.  How did the Sun's family of planets and minor bodies originate?
  2.  How did the solar system evolve to its current diverse state?
  3.  What are the characteristics of the solar system that led to the origin of life?
  4.  How did life begin and evolve on Earth and has it evolved elsewhere in the solar system?
  5.  What are the hazards and resources in the solar system environment that will affect the extension of human presence in space?

A unifying theme for the exploration of our solar system is habitability — the ability of worlds to support life. We seek to know whether life is or was present elsewhere in our planetary backyard, how we and our planet came to be, and what are the future prospects for terrestrial life on and off the Earth. The Roadmap describes a series of small (Discovery), medium (New Frontiers), and large (flagship) class missions to address the key science questions.

Proposing a Mission

Announcements Of Opportunity

New Frontiers investigation proposals are solicited via the Announcement of Opportunity (AO) process. Each mission proposal is led by a principal investigator (PI) who is typically affiliated with a university or research institution. The PI selects team members from industry, government laboratories, universities and small businesses to develop the scientific objectives and instrument payload. The team brings together the skills and expertise needed to carry out a mission from concept development through data analysis. The PI is responsible for the overall success of the project by assuring that cost, schedule and performance objectives are met.

NASA is committed to the principles of open competition and merit review as a key to excellence. Mission proposals in response to the AO are chosen through an extensive competitive peer review process. Proposals require careful tradeoffs between science and cost to produce investigations with the highest possible science value for the price.

NASA Announcements of Opportunity can be found on the NASA Solicitation and Proposal Integrated Review and Evaluation System, or NSPIRES, website under "Solicitations." NSPIRES also lists proposals selected to conduct NASA research.

The New Frontiers Program Acquisition website includes announcements, lessons learned, and a library of reference documents needed to write a New Frontiers mission proposal.

The Science Office for Mission Assessments (SOMA) at NASA Langley Research Center supports the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) at NASA Headquarters in the acquisition of Earth and space science missions and instruments. SOMA supports the development of AO solicitations and the Technical, Management, and Cost (TMC) evaluations of proposals received in response to the AO solicitations and Phase A concept studies. In addition, the SOMA leads special studies, independent assessments, and reviews for SMD.

Education And Public Outreach

Among NASA's strategic goals is to communicate the results of its efforts to the American public and to enhance the science and technical education of the next generation of Americans. All selected investigations are required to implement a core Education and Public Outreach (E/PO) program consistent with the SMD program strategy to actively engage students and the public in the excitement of space exploration through a variety of venues.

Proposals may also include a Student Collaboration (SC) that could be development of an instrument; an investigation of scientific questions; analysis and display of data; development of supporting hardware or software; or other aspects of the investigation.

Go to "NASA Science - For Researchers" for information on preparing the E/PO element of a mission proposal.

The Program Office

The Discovery and New Frontiers Program Office was formed in August 2004, when the NASA Science Mission Directorate combined two existing solar system exploration program offices into one. The office is part of the Flight Programs & Partnership Office at the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The main goal of the Program Office is to enhance the probability of mission success through technical expertise and independent oversight during all phases of the mission life cycle. A high-powered, effective team examines risks and mitigation plans and conducts technical assessments and reviews when necessary. The program manager is Allen Bacskay.

The small-class Discovery missions and the medium-class New Frontiers missions complement NASA's flagship missions to meet the many scientific and technical challenges of deep space exploration. The Discovery and New Frontiers missions include fly bys, orbiters, landers, impactors, and sample returns to assure optimum scientific value. The discoveries produced by these groundbreaking missions not only dramatically advance our understanding of the solar system, but also help NASA to further refine its exploration strategy.

The Program Office is responsible for ensuring that the missions adhere to committed cost, schedule, performance, reliability, safety, and education and public outreach requirements. This is done consistent with top-level policies, strategies, requirements, and funding established by NASA Headquarters Science Mission Directorate.

The baseline New Frontiers Program Plan defines the management of the New Frontiers Program for NASA. The entire Program Library can be found on the New Frontiers Program Acquisitions website.

Technical Reports

Final Report 2012

Report on the 2012 NASA Spacecraft Fault Management Workshop
February 2013

Final Report

Life Cycle Cost Growth Study for the Discovery and New Frontiers Program Office
February 2010

White Paper Report

Spacecraft Fault Management Workshop Results for the Science Mission Directorate, Planetary Sciences Division
March 2009