If you were like me, you likely spent most of last Sunday night/Monday morning watching the feed from the Jet Propulsion Laboratories as they (and we) sweated out the landing of the Mars Science Laboratory AKA the Mars Curiosity Rover. While some may consider putting another robot on Mars normal, consider that statement: Humans put a machine they created in another planet and did it safely, without creating a crater.
I’m sorry but that will never not be cool.
So with Curiosity beginning its mission, I thought we ought to take a look at some missions coming in the next few years that may catch our imagination – as well as a few I hope could happen before too long.
New Horizons (2015)
No current mission is as intriguing to me as New Horizons, which is currently two-thirds of the way to its destination: Pluto and its moons. For the former planet’s fan base, this will likely be a dream come true as no human probe has ever visited Pluto or other Kuiper Belt denizens. Consider that radio signals from New Horizons to Earth and back will take a total of 6 hours once it reaches its destination. Launched in 2006, New Horizons will be able to begin its mission on February 2015, when its sensors will be able to pick up the tiny dwarf planet. The scheduled flyby of Pluto is expected to take place on July 14, 2015 (approximately at 6:47 AM EST). So set your calendars.
If possible, New Horizons will also travel to other Kuiper Belt objects and send our first up-close analysis of the cold, distant items at the edges of the Solar System. So far, they’re scouring the skies to determine what could be other potentially-interesting targets for New Horizons to visit that are on its course. In the meantime, the next interesting visit along its path will happen in August 2014, when it goes past Neptune.
I’ve got a small admission to make: I’ve an irrational fear of the planet Jupiter. No, I didn’t get beaten up by Jupiter in elementary school and I don’t expect it to be chasing me down a dark alley. Unlike the rest of the tranquil, quiet gas giants in our solar system, Jupiter is a swirling monster that appears alive thanks to its 600-mph winds churning up bands of storms and giant hurricanes. Honestly, just check it out spinning! Ahhh!!
And yet, without Jupiter, it’s unlikely that life on Earth would have survived long enough to develop. Given Jupiter’s massive size and gravitational pull, it acts as a giant Hoover that sucks up potentially dangerous space debris and comets that could hit the Earth. So knowing how it developed is a big deal. Juno is set to arrive approximately on July 4, 2016 and it will study Jupiter’s magnetic and gravitational fields, water concentration and winds. It’s set to peel the layers from the massive planet and potentially reveal how it formed and the extent of its powers.
The Mars Atmospheric and Volatile Evolution mission to Mars is unlikely to be as “sexy” as the Curiosity rover simply because it’s not going to make a landing. It’ll be an orbiter that will study the atmosphere of Mars. But its mission is just as important as it’s going to seek the answer to an old question “How and why did Mars come to lose its atmosphere?”
Most astronomers think that Mars was at one point a similar planet to the Earth, but that it lost its magnetic shield and that the Sun proceeded to boil and blast away the bulk of Mars’ atmosphere and oceans. Maven will seek to, in a sense, turn back the hands of time to reveal just how this process came to be. Expect Maven to be launched next year and begin its mission sometime in 2014.
Mars Sample Return (2020s?)
This is one of the two “holy grail” missions that every scientist is crossing their fingers will happen in their lifetime. A mission that travels to Mars and sends back soil samples has been in various stages of discussion, development and planning but hasn’t gone off for one reason (funding) or another (logistics) have not gone off. Currently there’s a planned mission between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) but that one isn’t expected to even begin until the 2020s.
Why is this such a coveted mission? So far, all data we have on Mars has been collected and analyzed by the rovers we’ve launched to the red planet. Given the premium on weight and space that each of these rovers work with, it has limited what kind of analyses are possible. To have actual Martian soil samples brought back to Earth would free scientists to run any number of tests and go further than we’ve ever been in our knowledge of planetary development.
Mission to Europa (2020s?)
And this is the other “holy grail” mission for astronomers. Put simply: this might be the best chance to find extraterrestrial life on our Solar System. Europa, the sixth-largest satellite in the Solar System, is covered by a large layer of ice. But the cracks and fissures seen on the moon’s surface lead most astronomers to believe that the layer sits atop a gigantic liquid ocean which is heated due to the gravitational tug of war between Europa and Jupiter. Oceans, as we know them, mean life. So far, all our information on Europa has been obtained by orbiters either passing through or on orbit.
To actually land on Europa involves solving various issues; the biggest of which is the radiation. Europa receives around 540 rems of radiation per day – the most any astronaut is allowed to take in during a space mission is 25 rems while most of us walking around on Earth get 0.3 rems per year! Any probe attempting to land has to be properly shielded to survive and to prevent contamination of Europa’s ocean.
So when will it happen? Not any time soon. ESA plans to send the Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE) in 2022 but this is only the latest of many plans that have been proposed to visit this moon. Plans have a nasty way of collapsing where it concerns Europa.
Mission to Enceladus (????)
If Europa is the best place where life may exist outside of Earth, then Enceladus follows it. The sixth-largest satellite of Saturn, Enceladus is known to have liquid water. There are photos by orbiters such as the Cassini spacecraft which show massive plumes of water shooting out into space. And, unlike Europa, the potential liquid water ocean in Enceladus is not locked underneath a massive layer of ice that must be penetrated.
Getting there would be a massive undertaking and it would be hampered by the fact that Enceladus orbits Saturn inside its outermost ring, the E ring. Particularly where the ring is its most narrow but also its densest. While many astrobiologists hope for a mission to Enceladus, none is currently even in the drawing stages. Whatever secrets are locked inside this cold world will remain secret for the foreseeable future.