NASA has narrowed the choices for its next unmanned space mission down to three potential expeditions: one aimed at Venus and the others promising to return samples of an asteroid or the moon.

But only one of those contenders will get the green light for $650 million in funding (which excludes rocket costs) and a launch sometime before Dec. 30, 2018. The competition is part of NASA’s New Frontiers program to develop medium-class missions to explore the solar system.

“These are projects that inspire and excite young scientists, engineers and the public,” said Ed Weiler, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, in a statement.

NASA has set aside $3.3 million in seed money for each of the three potential missions in 2010 to flesh out their project concepts, feasibility, costs and management plans. The proposals were submitted in July 2009 and a final selection will be made in mid-2011.

“These three proposals provide the best science value among eight submitted to NASA this year,” Weiler said.

Here’s a look at the top contenders vying for NASA’s next New Frontiers mission slot:

Target: Venus — The Surface and Atmosphere Geochemical Explorer (SAGE) mission to Venus would send a probe plunging through the planet’s atmosphere to land on its harsh surface. The spacecraft would perform extensive measurements of the Venusian atmosphere and weather on the way down, and then dig into the ground to study surface composition and mineralogy.

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