Now that Cassini has gone out in a blaze of glory, you are 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 endeavours into deep space are on the calendar. Here are a variety of space missions worth keeping tabs on over the next decade or so. A rendezvous with the red planet Humanity has had a long love affair with Mars. We have launched about 20 successful missions to study the planet since the 1960s, including the still operational Opportunity and Curiosity rovers. It is also a source of intrigue for scientists seeking clues to where life may have once existed. In May 2018, NASA will launch the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (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 centre of the planet,” said W Bruce Banerdt, with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, USA. Joining Curiosity and Opportunity will be Mars 2020 Rover. This rover will land on the planet that 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. Looking for life on Jupiter’s moons The Europa Clipper mission will sail past Jupiter’s icy moon Europa on 40 to 45 flybys sometime in the 2020s. Scientists believe 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. Also eyeing Jupiter’s satellites is the European Space Agency’s (ESA) 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, 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.” Drop me off at 162173 Ryugu Although navigating an asteroid belt is not nearly as precarious as it appears in movies, it is still a calculated operation. 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 next year. The mission will land a small probe on the surface, as well as three hopping minirovers, 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. In August 2018, NASA’s Osiris-Rex 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 mph, Osiris-Rex will survey it for about a year. Then in 2020, it will perform a touch-and-go manoeuvre with a robotic arm to collect a sample from its surface. It will come in contact with the asteroid for only about five seconds. 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. In 2022, NASA’s Psyche mission will launch on a journey to investigate 16 Psyche, a huge chunk of metal in the belt between Mars and Jupiter. Seeing beyond our solar system Cosmic exploration is not constrained to our solar system. There are several missions aimed at observing the worlds outside our sun’s grasp. Launching in the mid-2020s, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope will be as powerful as the Hubble Space Telescope, but with a field of view that is 100 times larger. According to NASA, it could spot thousands of exoplanets and one billion galaxies. It will also try to unveil some of the mysteries behind dark energy and dark matter. The Characterising Exoplanet Satellite, operated by the ESA, will also be searching for exoplanets. It should launch next year and will orbit the Earth, hunting for rocky planets as they pass in front of bright stars. In 2026, ESA’s Plato spacecraft will also look for transits of Earth-like planets that may reside in ‘goldilocks’ zones in other stellar systems. The golden-winged James Webb Space Telescope will take flight late next year. It will be the most powerful space telescope ever constructed. It is an $8.8 billion endeavour to piece together the 13.7 billion-year-old puzzle of how the universe came into existence after the Big Bang. Reaching out to the stars Launching in summer 2018, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will become Earth’s first spacecraft to ever reach a star. It will fly within about four 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. 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. Meandering around Mercury Compared with Mars, Venus and Earth, Mercury is the inner solar system’s most overlooked world. Only NASA’s Mariner 10 and MESSENGER missions have observed it up-close. But in 2018, that will change as the ESA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency launch the BepiColombo mission to explore the tiny planet. It is a joint venture that consists of two spacecraft: the Mercury Planetary Orbiter and the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter. After arriving at Mercury in late 2025, the pair will enter separate orbits. There, they will both collect information about Mercury’s composition, atmosphere, magnetosphere and geophysics.
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