The exploratory missions to Mars are still a few years away from starting, but NASA certainly isn't wasting any time. The U.S. space agency has something equally enticing in store, which might happen a little sooner - in about a decade - than the journey to the red planet.

With their minds set on the future of space exploration, NASA officials are already making plans about the next mission that will unravel more of our solar system's secrets.

In a recent news release, NASA announced it has received 12 proposals for a future unmanned mission that aims to launch a robotic solar system probe sometime in the mid-2020s.

The exploration ideas were submitted under the agency's New Frontiers Program, which already boasts some impressive achievements.

NASA is currently analyzing the dozen proposals, which will be subjected to "scientific and technical review" in the following seven months, and will be designating a winner in two years' time.

Possible Routes For The Next Big Exploratory Mission

Although NASA didn't offer specific details about the submitted ideas, it did however specify the list of themes given to the applicants.

The 12 proposals were limited to six themes that will surely spark a great amount of interest, considering the future exploratory mission might involve exploring ocean worlds such as Titan or Enceladus.

Another possibility is that the robotic probe might be sent out in the solar system to gather comet samples. Or the mission might be entirely focused on developing a new Saturn probe.

According to NASA, the next New Frontiers mission will be chosen from among the following themes:

1. Comet Surface Sample Return
2. Lunar South Pole-Aitken Basin Sample Return
3. Ocean Worlds (Titan and/or Enceladus)
4. Saturn Probe
5. Trojan Tour and Rendezvous
6. Venus In Situ Explorer

Tough Selection Process

The future solar system exploration mission will be the fourth one carried out through the New Frontiers Program and is expected to cost around $1 billion.

The destination of this new mission will be selected from among the few proposals that make it through the initial seven-month scrutiny. These ideas (or idea), which NASA said will be made public in November, will then be the object of a Phase A concept study.

"Mission proposals are selected following an extensive competitive peer review process," stated NASA officials in the news release.

Once this second round of selection is completed, the agency will choose a winning proposal to be later advanced into "subsequent mission phases."

"We're looking forward to reviewing these exciting investigations and moving forward with our next bold mission of discovery," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

The New Frontiers Program And Its Reputed Portfolio

If the name of this program doesn't ring a bell, you might however be acquainted with its three remarkable missions.

One of its highly mediatized missions involves the New Horizons spacecraft, which became the first one to explore Pluto in its 2015 flyby and is now making its way to the Kuiper asteroid belt.

Another achievement of the New Frontiers program is the Juno spacecraft currently orbiting Jupiter and closely studying the gas giant.

The third mission developed under this program has to do with the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft and its quest to visit the asteroid Bennu and return samples to Earth.

"New Frontiers is about answering the biggest questions in our solar system today, building on previous missions to continue to push the frontiers of exploration," explained Zurbuchen.

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