Cassini Is Gone. Here Are the Next Space Missions to Watch Out For.

Cassini Is Gone. Here Are the Next Space Missions to Watch Out For.


Now that Cassini has gone out in a blaze of glory, you’re probably wondering what cosmic missions you can get excited about next. Though NASA is reviewing proposals that may include a return to Saturn to seek signs of life on ocean worlds like its moons Enceladus and Titan, other endeavors into deep space are already on the calendar. Here are a variety of space missions worth keeping tabs on over the next decade or so.


If You Want to Rendezvous on the Red Planet

An image sent from NASA’s Opportunity rover shows “Wdowiak Ridge,” on Mars. The rover will be joined by a handful of other craft in the coming years.CreditNASA/JPL-Caltech

Humanity has had a long love affair with the Red Planet. We’ve launched about 20 successful missions to study Mars since the 1960s, including the still operational Opportunity and Curiosity rovers. It’s also a source of intrigue for scientists searching for clues to where life may have once existed in the solar system.

In May 2018, NASA will launch the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, or InSight, mission. This project will drop a stationary lander on Martian soil with the goal of understanding what happened at the rocky planet’s very beginning.

“It’s a mission to map out the deep interior of Mars all the way down to the very center of the planet,” said W. Bruce Banerdt, the mission’s principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. It will take detailed geophysical measurements to determine the thickness of the planet’s core, mantle and crust.

“It’s like using a microscope instead of looking at it from across the room,” he said.

While nestled on the ground, the InSight lander will listen for seismic activity and small vibrations — marsquakes.

Engineers and technicians at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, testing the deployment of solar arrays on the InSight lander in 2015.CreditNASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin

Using a burrowing device known as a heat flow probe, it will dig about 16 feet into the surface — making the deepest man-made hole on Mars — and take temperature readings. Another tool will examine the speed of Mars’ rotation and the wobble it makes as it spins along its axis, similar to the wobble in a spinning top.

Joining Curiosity and Opportunity will be the less imaginatively named Mars 2020 Rover. Planned for launch in, you guessed it, 2020, this rover will land on the planet that same year. Unlike its predecessors, this mission is intended to send samples from the Martian surface back to Earth to help with the search for evidence of ancient life on Mars.

“We are going to put these tubes down on the surface of Mars and drive away,” said Kenneth A. Farley, a geochemist from Caltech and project scientist for the Mars 2020 Rover. “Then in future missions we’ll arrive and pick them up.”

The Mars 2020 Rover is essentially part of a three-step plan to collect bits of Mars and study them on Earth, which has never been done before. The rover will collect 37 samples in test tubes that are immediately sealed. Once it has collected all of its samples it will find a spot to deposit them.

To retrieve them, the thought is that a second spacecraft will land near that site, collect the samples, put them into a rocket on its back, and launch them into space.

Finally, the hope is that a third craft will sweep across Mars and grab the basketball-sized container with the samples and blast back to Earth.

The European Space Agency and the Russian space agency are also in on the Martian land rush. In 2020 their joint venture, ExoMars will land a European rover and a Russian surface platform to Mars.


If You Want to Jet Off to Jupiter

NASA’s Europa Clipper mission will study whether the moon Europa has the basic ingredients for life.CreditNASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

The Europa Clipper mission will sail past Jupiter’s icy moon Europa on some 40 to 45 flybys sometime in the 2020s. Scientists believe that Europa has an ocean of salty water beneath its crust, and the NASA mission, will help determine if the moon has the recipe for life: a splash of liquid water, a sprinkle of chemical ingredients, and an energy source that can bake up some biology.

Also eyeing Jupiter’s satellites is the E.S.A.’s JUICE mission, which stands for Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, and is planned for launch in 2022. In addition to Europa, the space probe will study Ganymede, the largest moon in the solar system, and Callisto, which has more impact craters than any other object in the solar system.

“We want to go to Jupiter and explore its moons for two basic reasons,” said Giuseppe Sarri, the project manager for JUICE, “First to understand our solar system how it was built how it works, and second to see and understand the probability of having life outside our planet.”

JUICE will use ice-penetrating radar to peek beneath the moons’ surfaces and a laser to measure its geological features.

“We have to do this job for each of the three moons,” said Olivier Witasse the project scientist for the mission. “Maybe one will have liquid water, maybe all of them will.”

At the end of its mission JUICE will be put into orbit around Ganymede and become the first spacecraft to orbit a moon other than our own.

Scientists will also explore Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids, which consist of two giant asteroid clusters caught in the gaseous planet’s gravitational field. NASA’s Lucy mission will investigate six of these rocks in a path that takes it through both asteroid clouds. It will launch in 2021 and study these half dozen rocks from 2027 until 2033, according to NASA.


If You Don’t Want to Avoid Asteroids

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying NASA’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft launching from Cape Canaveral, Fla., last year.CreditSandy Joseph and Tim Terry/NASA

Although navigating an asteroid belt isn’t nearly as precarious as it appears in movies, it’s still a calculated operation, especially if your goal is to rendezvous with one of the space rocks on its orbit around the solar system. There are three upcoming asteroid missions to be on the lookout for.

Already on its way, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Hayabusa-2 mission will arrive at asteroid 162173 Ryugu in 2018. The mission will land a small probe on the surface, as well as three hopping mini-rovers, according to NASA. After the lander drops from the Hayabusa-2 mother ship, it will collect samples. But the main goal of Hayabusa-2 is to return to Earth with those samples in December 2020, after exploring the asteroid for more than a year.

As the “2” in the name implies, this will be Japan’s second round-trip to an asteroid. The first Hayabusa launched in 2003, reached its target in 2005, and returned in 2010.

NASA’s Osiris-Rex launched on Sept. 8, 2016, and in August 2018 it will approach the asteroid Bennu, a 1,650-foot-wide, carbon-rich rock. After catching up with the asteroid, which speeds around the sun at about 63,000 miles per hour, Osiris-Rex will survey it for about a year. Then in 2020, it will perform a touch-and-go maneuver with a robotic arm to collect a sample from its surface. It will come in contact with the asteroid for only about five seconds, enough time to release a burst of nitrogen gas to rustle up sediments. It can collect up to about four pounds of samples. Then the spacecraft will leave Bennu in March 2021, arriving at Earth in 2023.

The samples will tell us about the composition of the asteroid as well as help reveal mysteries about the origin of our solar system. What also makes Bennu interesting is that NASA predicts that it has a 1 in 2,500 chance of hitting Earth toward the end of the 22nd century.

In 2022, NASA’s Psyche mission will launch on a journey to investigate an intriguing asteroid in the belt between Mars and Jupiter. Its target, 16 Psyche, is a huge chunk of metal. Most asteroids are made of rock, but according to NASA, this one is made of metallic iron and nickel, the same material found in Earth’s core. It’s the only known object of its kind in the solar system, and it has led some scientists to guess that it may be the remnants of an early planet’s core that didn’t survive the cosmic barrages and collisions that characterized the solar system’s violent history.

An artists’s rendering of 16 Psyche, an asteroid made entirely of metal that NASA intends to investigate starting in 2022.CreditPeter Rubin/Arizona State University

If You Want to Go Beyond Our Solar System

Mirrors intended for the James Webb space telescope sitting just outside a testing chamber at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. in 2011.CreditDavid Higginbotham/NASA

Cosmic exploration is not constrained to our solar system. There are several missions aimed at observing the worlds outside our sun’s grasp, though they require powerful telescopes and satellites.

Launching in the mid 2020s, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or Wfirst, will be as powerful as the Hubble space telescope, but with a field of view that is 100 times larger. That means, according to NASA, it will potentially spot thousands of exoplanets and more than a billion galaxies during its mission. It will also try to unveil some of the mysteries behind dark energy and dark matter, the substances that make up the majority of the universe.

The Characterizing Exoplanet Satellite, or CHEOPS, operated by the E.S.A., will also be searching for exoplanets. It is planned to launch in 2018 and will orbit the Earth. Its goal is to hunt for rocky planets as they pass in front of bright stars, an activity known as transiting. Similarly, E.S.A.’s Planetary transits and oscillations of stars or Plato spacecraft, will also look for transits of Earthlike planets that may reside in “goldilocks” zones in other stellar systems. It launches in 2026.

The golden-winged James Webb Space Telescope will take flight in late 2018. About seven times as large as the Hubble, it will be the most powerful space telescope ever constructed. Operated by NASA along with the E.S.A. and the Canadian Space Agency, it is an $8.8 billion endeavor to piece together the 13.7 billion-year-old puzzle of how the universe came into existence after the Big Bang.

If You Want to Soak in the Sun

Inspecting the solar array cooling system for the Parker Solar Probe spacecraft at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., in February.CreditNASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

Launching in the summer of 2018, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will become Earth’s first spacecraft to ever reach a star. It will fly within about 4 million miles of the sun’s surface, braving the brutal heat and destructive radiation of its outermost atmosphere, known as the corona. But the probe will be well-protected from the scorching environment thanks to its heat shield, a 4.5-inch-thick carbon composite wall which, according to NASA, will keep its tools at about room temperature.

The Parker Solar Probe will study the corona and investigate the solar wind, a constant gust of charged particles that streams deep into the solar system, and gather data on what causes it to accelerate.

After launch, the small-car sized craft will perform several flybys of Venus before vaulting itself toward the sun. It is expected to make its closest solar approach in December 2024.


If You Want to Meander around Mercury

Craters on Mercury.CreditNASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

Compared with Mars, Venus and our own Earth, Mercury is the inner solar system’s most overlooked world. So far, only NASA’s Mariner 10 and MESSENGER missions have observed it up close. But in 2018, that will change as the European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency launch the BepiColombo mission to explore the tiny planet.

It is a joint venture that consists of two spacecrafts: the Mercury Planetary Orbiter and the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter. After arriving at Mercury in late 2025 the pair will enter separate orbits. There, according to the E.S.A., they will both collect information about Mercury’s composition, atmosphere, magnetosphere and geophysics in order to investigate its history and provide insight into how it and the other rocky planets formed.



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