Astrobiology, Space, Spaceflight

Nasa’s Next Adventures!

The Rovers, Landers and Orbiters; Flybys, Touchdowns and Sample Returns

Artemis- NASA’s next major mission series- has dominated most media coverage of NASA’s next steps… and rightly so! It will be the first time since 1972 that we have been to the moon, and it will mark the first female to step foot there! But I’ve touched on this previously, and will do an in-depth post about it next time if you guys are interested? (let me know in the comments) So in this post I will be focusing less on human spaceflight, but on what the 20s hold for unmanned exploration of our solar system and beyond! 

MOON 

It is not only NASA aiming for the moon! Although Artemis is probably the most significant set of missions, it is also the target of many other agencies. Named after the Chinese goddess of the moon, the Chang’e missions have been quietly successful. Beginning in 2007, they have successfully launched 2 orbiters (which mapped the moon in unprecedented detail), and 2 rovers (one of which carried experiments into plant growth). The next 2 missions are planned to bring back the first lunar samples since 1976, and Chang’e 7/8 will begin the development of a robotic research station on the Lunar South Pole! 

Gold coloured rover on the moon (concept art)
The Chang’e 4 lander, which was the first to land on the far side of the moon, and was home to the first plants grown!
via National Geographic

SpaceX also plans to begin its Lunar Tourism venture, starting with Yusaku Maezawa’s (a Japanese artist and entrepreneur) orbital flight. 

Blank white rocket in front of the moon
Concept art of the Big Falcon Rocket on route to the moon via spacex

MARS 

As I mentioned in *this post* both ESA and NASA have Mars rovers lined up to land on the Red Planet in the 20s. Both were expected to launch this year, but ESA recently announced they were delaying until 2022 because of engineering setbacks. 

Curiosity rover selfie
The Curiosity Rover on Mars, soon to be joined by Perseverance, and later on Rosalind Franklin

Other, less famed, space agencies aren’t far behind. JAXA plans to launch a sample return mission to Mars’ moons, and both India and the UAE aim to send orbiters (or even landers and rovers) to Mars within the next decade. 

In addition, SpaceX plans to launch a private uncrewed mission to Mars in the mid 20s, with the aim of setting up the initial infrastructure for power, mining, and life support! However, Elon Musk is notoriously optimistic, so whether any of this launches in the next decade is anyone’s guess!

ASTEROIDS 

The Osiris-rex mission launched in 2016, and reached its target in 2018. Since then it’s been imaging the cube-shaped asteroid Bennu, discovering that it’s actually covered in boulders! Already it has shed light on asteroid formation, but a manoeuvre in July 2020 should result in even more new knowledge- a sample collection! It won’t land on the asteroid, but it will extend a robotic arm that will collect around 60g of material (fingers crossed). The spacecraft will then return to earth in 2023 and drop off the capsule containing the samples! What these samples contain and show us are likely to spark an increase in asteroid research, as they could be quite lucrative if mined! 

The Psyche mission is an orbiter that will head into the asteroid belt to a unique world- thought to be the core of a failed planet, Psyche is made entirely of metal! The mission- due to launch in 2022 by NASA- will determine the age, exact composition and its formation, all in the hope that it will give an insight into not just how the solar system formed, but what our own planet is made of! (Because we think Earth also has a nickel-iron core like this). What makes it most interesting is that it will be the first time we see a world made of something other than rock and ice! 

How NASA's Psyche Mission Will Explore an Unknown World We Can Barely  Pinpoint From Earth

Another exciting asteroid mission is to a binary system to investigate our options when it comes to planetary defence, in the case of a possible asteroid impact! The Asteroid Impact and Deflection mission will start with the launch of NASA spacecraft ‘DART’ in early 2022, which will be set to impact with a 160m wide moonlet that orbits the 780m wide Didymos. The spacecraft will be powered by a next-generation xenon thruster, a new method of propulsion, and will reach its target in just 6 months, at a speed of 6.6 km/s: that’s over 14,000 miles an hour! Its impact will change Didymoon’s orbital speed significantly enough for earth-based telescopes to measure the precise change. However, there will still be some gaps in the data, which will be filled in by ESA’s Hera mission, which will reach the system 5 years after the impact to image the crater! Along the way, it will go via other asteroids of interest to

A Mission to Deflect an Asteroid Just Moved into the Final Design ...
Didymos (right) and Didymoon (left)
via Universe Today

BEYOND THE ASTEROID BELT

For me, these are the most exciting missions, as they are really pushing our capabilities to the max! Most of these deep space missions are heading to Jupiter, simply because it’s huge size makes it incredibly special: it protects Earth from asteroids, it creates an environment that has captured moons the size of planets, and studying it could shed some light on the formation of the solar system! NASA’s mission is the Europa Clipper. Following up on the Galileo spacecraft, this new rendition will launch in 2024 and reach Jupiter at the beginning of the next decade to perform 44 flybys of the icy moon! Its objectives are to confirm the existence and composition of Europa’s outer ice shell, as well as its inner ocean, to evaluate its habitability and also in preparation for a potential future lander. 

Satellite looking spacecraft over europa, infront of jupiter
via Wikipedia

ESA’s Jupiter orbiter will also be visiting Europa but as part of a larger study called JUICE (the JUpiter ICy moon Explorer), which will visit 3 of the Galilean Moons. It is excluding Io, due to the fact this mission is investigating the properties of icy moons, and io is anything but that! After visiting Europa and then Callisto, it will enter orbit around Ganymede and conduct a more detailed investigation into the solar system’s largest moon, before crashing into Ganymede’s surface to prevent it doing any unprecedented damage. 

NASA is also taking part in a mission to Saturn- Breakthrough Enceladus! This will be a mission of firsts: the first deep-space mission that is privately funded, and the first mission to the famously ringed planet since Cassini was (purposefully) crashed into it in 2017. Set to launch towards the end of the decade, it will search Enceladus’ plumes for microbes, or other evidence of life, and may also carry a radar instrument to map the ice and see what is beneath it! However I couldn’t find any further updates on this mission since the original announcements from 2018, so I’m not sure if it has gotten further than the initial research phase outlined in the agreement. 

Dragonfly (spacecraft) - Wikipedia
Concept art for Dragonfly, showing landing and take off!
via Wikipedia

Finally, one more mission to look out for is to Titan, a very interesting moon of Saturn. It has been visited once before by the Huygens lander in 2005. Set for launch in 2026, the Dragonfly lander will explore Titan in an entirely new way- from the air! All landers so far have done exactly that- landed, on the surface. Some of them crawl across the surface, like the rovers of Mars, but Dragonfly will take advantage of Titan’s incredibly thick atmosphere and reduced gravity to fly around much like how a typical drone does on earth! This means it will be able to take measurements at multiple sites on the surface, far apart enough to gain a deep understanding of the whole moon, not just one area, as well as taking atmospheric measurements. It will be able to travel tens of kilometres at a time, at a speed of 36 km/h: That’s practically the formula one of landers- curiosity only travels 0.18km/h!!

Text reads: From our closest neighbour, to the moons of gas giants! Here are some of the destinations being launched to in the next decade

So, what missions are you most looking forward to? Fingers crossed that the current coronavirus situation doesn’t push any missions back too much! I’m so excited to see what new science these missions uncover, especially as by then, I might actually be part of them (well, that’s my goal)!

If you got to choose, where would you send a mission? What would be its goals? What would it look like? Let me know your ideas in the comments- be creative!

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