With the New Horizons spacecraft’s successful July 2015 flyby past Pluto and its moons, the public is fascinated with the possibility of future missions to strange new worlds, or even familiar old worlds (think Mars). NASA’s 2013 Planetary Science Decadal Survey, a kind of “wish list” for missions in the next 10 years, laid out three bold new ventures: Mars 2020, a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, and a possible Uranus orbiter. Certainly, the pipeline from proposal to launch pad is a long one, and often must thread the budgetary whims of a couple of presidential administrations. But most of the following missions have already passed that crucial funding stage and are now already under construction or en route to their destination.
10. Mars InSight: Drilling Another Planet
Is Mars still geologically active, or is it a dead world? NASA’s InSight mission hopes to answer this key question. Headed to Mars next year, InSight (the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) lander is equipped with a seismometer and heat-transfer probe, and will be the first mission to drill into the surface of Mars. It’s based on the design of the successful Mars Phoenix mission that landed on that planet in 2008.
9. Mars 2020: Search For Life on the Red Planet Continues
The next rover to head to Mars will, in many ways, be a twin of the successful Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity. This as-yet-unnamed rover will land in a similar sky-crane fashion, and feature an upgraded suite of instruments designed specifically to search for signs of life — past or present — on the Red Planet. Currently set for a late 2020 launch, it will reach its target early the following year.
8. Deep Space Atomic Clock: A GPS For Space Travel
On Earth, we have a constellation of GPS satellites that aid with everything from pinpointing a military ship’s position at sea to finding your way home from a shopping trip. But in deep space, getting an accurate fix on position isn’t so easy. The Deep Space Atomic Clock is an experiment that may address this issue and provide ultra-precise positioning for future deep-space missions. Scheduled to launch into Earth orbit in 2016 as part of NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation Program in partnership with the Department of Defense, the Deep Space Atomic Clock technology demonstrator will be 50 times more accurate than the best navigation clocks in use today.
7. Juno: A Close Look at Jupiter
Launched in August 2011, NASA’s Juno orbiter is en route to Jupiter, and will arrive in orbit next year. Juno will follow a long, looping elliptical orbit around the giant planet, and will study the atmospheric dynamics, magnetic field and evolution of the largest planet in the solar system. Juno is also unique in that it’s the first mission to the outer solar system that does not utilize a plutonium power core, a resource that is now in short supply for NASA. Instead, the spacecraft is equipped with three large school bus-sized solar panels for power.
6. Uranus Orbiter: A Return to the Icy Outer Planets
Humanity has visited the outer planets Uranus and Neptune only once each, during quick flyby missions carried out by the Voyager 2 spacecraft in the 1980s. The possibility of a dedicated mission to Uranus placed third in NASA’s 2013 wish list for planetary exploration within the next decade. Engineers envision a Uranus Orbiter as similar to the Cassini mission to Saturn. As NASA proved with the recent New Horizons rendezvous with Pluto, it can reach such a distant target with stunning accuracy; the problem will be funding. A NASA official recently put the cost of such a mission at around $2 billion, no small sum in an era of dwindling space exploration budgets.
Then there’s the aforementioned dilemma of a lack of plutonium for power. Although the Department of Energy has restarted production, it will take years to produce even a small amount. And while plutonium production for space exploration was a byproduct of the Cold War, the stuff NASA uses is a different isotope than the fissile, weaponized kind. Despite the challenges, expect to see a Uranus orbiter on the launch pad in the 2020s at the earliest, arriving at Uranus in the 2030s.
5. Europa Multiple Flyby Mission: Life on an Icy Moon?
First seen in detail by the Voyager flyby missions in 1979, Jupiter’s icy moon Europa is a tantalizing world that may harbor a subsurface ocean and — just possibly — life. The Europa Multiple-Flyby Mission will carry a battery of instruments, including powerful ice-penetrating radar capable of peering down into the depths as it makes successive passes near the moon. Look for this dedicated Europa mission in the 2025 timeframe.
4. OSIRIS-REx: NASA Visits Asteroid That Might Strike Earth
Few people have heard of asteroid 101955 Bennu. But this half-kilometer in diameter asteroid is no secret to scientists; according to University of Arizona researchers, Bennu “has a relatively high probability of impacting the Earth late in the 22nd century.” In terms of mathematical probability, that would be an 0.037% chance of impact in several passes during that period, a very real threat when we’re talking planet-killer-type Earth collisions. So future generations may one day hail a NASA mission set to launch in 2016. This spacecraft with an unwieldy name (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, and Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx), will rendezvous with the asteroid in 2019, collect a sample, and return to Earth in 2023. Learning the chemical and physical makeup of this asteroid would be useful to future scientists who might be looking to disrupt this potential impactor’s path. Of course, asteroids are in essence formed from the leftover debris from the formation of our solar system; collecting a sample could also help unlock secrets of that period.
3. LISA Pathfinder: Exploring the Mystery of Gravity Waves
The direct detection of gravitational waves generated by black hole or pulsar mergers has thus far eluded physicists on Earth. What scientists would really like to do is place a large detector array in space. LISA Pathfinder is a European Space Agency mission set to test the feasibility of placing a gravitational wave detector in space, and is launching late this year. Known as LISA, or the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, LISA Pathfinder will pave the way to test key technologies for a future free-flying triangle of satellites that would be placed in an orbit around the Sun by a joint NASA/ESA mission around 2034.
2. BepiColombo: Headed For Orbit Around Mercury
ESA’s first mission to Mercury, BepiColombo is a joint mission with the Japanese Space Agency and gets its curious name from Italian scientist Giuseppe “Bepi” Colombo, who was involved with the first Mariner 10 mission to Mercury. Part of the Cosmic Vision program, BepiColombo will launch in early 2017 for an orbital insertion around Mercury in 2024. NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft recently completed the first orbital mission around Mercury in early 2015, becoming the first human artifact to impact Mercury.
1. James Webb Space Telescope: Next-Generation Hubble
Often touted as the successor to Hubble, the James Webb Space Telescope is in fact an infrared workhorse that promises to push back the frontiers of modern astronomy. Described by NASA as being, “As big as a tennis court and as tall as a four-story building,” it is the largest space telescope ever built. James Webb is set to launch in late 2018.
Once in space, it will unfold its seven-segment mirror, and unlike Hubble, will operate out of range of any conceivable crewed repair mission. At a current price tag of $8.7 billion from development to launch, plus five years of operations, the JWST has narrowly missed the Congressional chopping block in the past, and many pundits in the astrophysics community have decried the large drain that the JWST will impose on NASA’s budget to perform astrophysics over the next few years.