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The Least Realistic Part of “The Martian?” China. And Why That Matters.


By now, you’ve likely seen or, at the least, heard about the critically acclaimed, space-themed blockbuster hit “The Martian.” Perhaps you have read the equally acclaimed book off of which the film is based. If neither of these apply to you, stop what you’re doing right this instant and go find it at your local bookstore or movie theater – you’re in for a real treat. “The Martian” is the latest in a series of high-budget, high-profile space films – 2013’s “Gravity,” Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13,” and Stanley Kubrick’s iconic, pre-Apollo-era “2001: A Space Odyssey” come to mind – which have served to excite the general public about space exploration, demonstrating through gripping plots and incredible imagery the many challenges, dangers, and triumphs that space travel entails. Dealing in themes resonant with both the human condition and our civilization’s technological capabilities – and technological failures – “The Martian” embodies the notion and interplay of “man and machine” which has driven the United States through the Space Age. Its no small wonder that NASA has used the film as a centerpiece in its publicity efforts for an eventual real-life mission to Mars.

"The Martian" - one of the most realistic space movies ever made, for the most part.

“The Martian” – one of the most realistic space movies ever made… for the most part. Credit: Twentieth Century Fox.

Above all other selling points, “The Martian” has been touted as being one of the most technically and scientifically realistic space movies ever released, perhaps even the most. The book’s author, Andy Weir, spent years doing research into the intricacies of a human Mars mission, along with details on orbital mechanics, biology, and NASA technology, prior to beginning his writing. Yet the effort to make “The Martian” a scientifically accurate story extended beyond simple research. In order to make the film as close to real-life as possible, the film team partnered with NASA, which provided significant consulting during the movie’s filming. The United States’ space agency answered hundreds of questions – on a weekly basis – on everything from radioisotope systems to the look of potential Mars habitations. NASA also sent hundreds of Mars images and images of its facilities to the film team, to help them design the most realistic sets possible. This marked what is probably the closest collaboration between NASA and Hollywood in history, and the effort definitely paid off – most, if not all, of the film’s few inaccuracies involve elements key in the development of the plot; that is, most of what’s unrealistic about “The Martian” is so because the story needed it to be. Even then, unless you’re a rocket engineer or a planetary scientist, most of these inaccuracies probably passed by unnoticed.

Yet there’s one glaring inaccuracy in “The Martian” that I, being a bit of a space policy buff, couldn’t help but notice; and while admittedly a crucial part of the plot, which the movie couldn’t do without, there are alternatives which could’ve been substituted in its place so as to make the movie more realistic. That said, I think the presence of this inaccuracy is a great thing, for a number of reasons. I’m talking about the subplot involving China’s space agency, the CNSA.

The CNSA (China's space agency) logo. Source: Spacenews

The CNSA (China’s space agency) logo. Source: Spacenews

The premise of China’s involvement in “The Martian” is, without giving away too many spoilers, simple enough. A NASA rocket carrying critical supplies to an astronaut stranded on Mars explodes during launch because of rushed preparations. In the panic which follows, there’s a miraculous turn of events – the Chinese announce that, unbeknownst to anyone, the CNSA has a secret rocket booster capable of making the journey to Mars which is already prepped and ready to go. NASA jumps on the offer, lest a stranded American astronaut die of starvation some 249 million miles from home, and the Chinese send their rocket, laden with supplies, skyward. Toward the movie’s end, the CNSA’s leadership is seen standing next to NASA’s administration, celebrating a positive conclusion to the harrowing series of events. In the book, the Chinese are rewarded with a seat on the next Mars mission for the help they provided NASA. It seems to be a watershed moment in international space relations, a testament to the benefits and goodwill that cooperation in outer space can bring.

And, in real life, it would never happen. That’s because, according to present day policy, it just can’t happen.

Space Cooperation with China? Read the Rules.

One could write a doctoral thesis on the myriad reasons why the cooperation seen between the United States and China in ‘The Martian” would never play out in real life. Arguments of geopolitics, foreign policy, military superiority and secrecy, and sensitive technologies abound when people discuss the factors behind a preclusion to Sino-American cooperation in space. Yet there’s a far simpler and far more definitive answer to why NASA would never accept a Chinese offer for an emergency resupply mission: the United States’ space agency is explicity prohibited, by law, from cooperating in any form or fashion with the Chinese.

In April 2011, the 112th Congress of the United States of America passed Public Law 112-55, SEC. 539. Written into this law was language which stated the following:

“None of the funds made available by this Act may be used for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) or the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement, or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China.”

A Chinese "Long March 9" rocket. Don't expect to see it launching anything involving the United States. Source: CSNA

A Chinese “Long March 9” rocket. Don’t expect to see it launching anything involving the United States. Source: CNSA

This is, in effect, a blanket ban on any cooperation between the United States’ space program and China. So, while other space-fearing nations such as the UK and Russia are working jointly with China on a number of potential future missions, NASA is banning Chinese scientists from astronomy conferences. China’s calls for international cooperation on a future space station get no response from NASA. So to think that NASA would gladly accept any Chinese offer to cooperate in space, even to help rescue a stranded astronaut, is, to say the least, unrealistic. For doing so would force the Federal Agency to break Federal law.

And, unlike the renegade astronauts in the film who refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer (and to whom this point also applies), I highly doubt that NASA would choose to just “do it anyway.”

So Why Choose China?

So “The Martian,” in both print and film version, represents a dedicated effort to make the most realistic and accurate space story ever created. It was written, filmed, and produced in close collaboration with NASA, which provided the production team much guidance and information on all things space. Then why is China – perhaps the most unrealistic option out there – the country that was chosen to swoop in and save NASA in its time of need? After all, there are far more realistic options out there that could reasonably substitute in China’s place – Russia, for example, which is noticeably absent throughout the film. The Russians have a history of cooperation with the United States in space, both in a limited fashion during the Soviet era and to a significant extent in recent times with the International Space Station. They have a number of rockets capable of launching a payload to Mars. Even if the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, has had to deal with a number of high-profile failures and institutional issues in recent years, at least it isn’t against the law to work with them.

The answer, I suspect, lay in marketing motivations and what I’ve termed the “congressional movie-goer.”

"The Martian" - bound to be a big hit in China. Credit: Twentieth Century Fox.

“The Martian” – bound to be a big hit in China. Credit: Twentieth Century Fox.

As for the marketing: China is expected to be the film’s largest income source overseas. Something tells me that Chinese moviegoers would be more than happy to flock to a film which paints them in an entirely benign and glamorous light – in the print version of “The Martian,” but not the film, at least some of China’s space leadership have reservations about helping the Americans, citing geopolitical and military concerns – in order to see the Chinese space program rescue the Americans. The Chinese space program, as some scholars have noted, is a source of significant pride for many of China’s citizens. Playing off that pride by having China serve as a rather faultless protagonist in the film is therefore quite a brilliant business decision by Twentieth Century Fox. We’ll need to wait until October 22nd, when the film opens in Chinese theaters, to see whether this really was a motivation behind China’s presence in the film, and whether it indeed payed off.

Yet the greater significance to China’s role in “The Martian” is, I believe, that it serves as a subtle yet targeted lobbying move aimed at the “congressional movie-goer;” that is, aimed at members of the policy-making world who go watch the film. The film is an attempt to make space cooperation with the Chinese appear more benign and appealing; it is an example of the hypothetical good that could come out of working with China. The hope is, I would suspect, that members of Congress or their staff who go watch the film will leave wondering if the cooperation ban written into law is really so rational after all, and whether something should be done to make it at least a little less stringent. So that, perhaps, China actually could help NASA if the time or need ever came.

"The Martian" - bound to change Congressional policy?

“The Martian” – bound to change Congressional policy? Credit: Twentieth Century Fox.

The motivation behind this is rather clear: NASA does not like being barred from cooperating with China. The United States’ space agency has made that much clear time and time again. NASA scientists have boycotted past conferences in protest against the ban. The agency has broached the issue of cooperation with the Chinese to the White House on at least a number of occasions. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden has written blog posts that implicitly hint at the need for future cooperation with China in space activities. Bolden went as far as to say that the ban on Sino-American cooperation in space was “temporary” during the recent International Astronautical Conference – about as thinly veiled a statement of hope that a U.S. government employee required to represent American policy during international events can make, given the circumstances.

Yet, as space policy expert John Logsdon pointed out to space.com, getting the United States to work with China in space will require a long policy battle, one that extends beyond NASA’s ability to influence events. He writes: “The first step is the White House working with congressional leadership to get current, unwise restrictions on such cooperation revoked.” Changes to the United States’ Federal law will require Congressional action and leadership, and the views of Congress, if the current ban says anything, do not always correspond with the views of NASA or the space community. If NASA hasn’t been able to convince Congress to change policy through its lobbying efforts alone, then perhaps some blockbuster magic – brought into fruition through, in part, NASA’s support and suggestions – might just do the trick. After all, NASA has played “The Martian” up in its publicity (and lobbying) efforts to win support for an eventual Mars mission. Its not too unbelievable to suspect that its doing the same when it comes to cooperation with the Chinese.

Why it all Matters.

Cooperation with China in the realm of space will be crucial for the United States if it hopes to maintain its leadership as the world’s eminent space power in the 21st century. There are some who disagree, citing geopolitical reasons, military rationales, or economic/technological concerns. They raise valid and understandable points, and any arguments to the contrary should not serve to underscore the importance of preserving American security and superiority against foreign rivals, especially those rapidly rising on the international stage. Yet the fact remains: the Chinese space program, along with China proper, is rapidly developing in capabilities and ambition, while the United States’ space program faces a period of stagnation brought on by low budgets and inconsistent goals. Mr. Bolden is correct in his blog posts: if the United States hopes to accomplish a Mars mission in the coming decades, or any other mission of major scale and scope for that matter, it will require the help and cooperation of the international community, including the world’s third most developed space program – China’s. There is a significant contradiction in the United States continuing to refuse to work with China on any matters related to space, even if they are for a purely civil, exploratory purpose, while also declaring itself the world’s leading space-fearing power. Meanwhile, other space players, such as Russia and the European Space Agency, with whom the United States will gladly work, are looking toward China for possible joint missions in the future. The United States is ceding its place as a true space leader, as the country capable of coordinating and overseeing an international effort in space akin to its role on the International Space Station, because it is refusing to cooperate with one of the most significant players at the table.

There are also the arguments to be made about the general “nature” of space as it pertains to international relations. Space is one of the few, if not the only, realms where rivals and competitors can come together and work in joint cooperation toward a peaceful goal. Humanity’s activity in outer space represents a shared spirit, that of reaching for what lays beyond and of exploring the unknown. This is a motivation which transcends ideology or nation. The impetus for exploration on the part of Chinese scientists and mission planners is the same for NASA’s. Cooperation in space is symbolic of the broader humanity, and the more fundamental pioneering spirit, that exists in all of us, regardless of our country of origin or economic system of choice. At the least, NASA should be enabled to cooperate with China on matters of exploration, so as to unlock the greater potential of that spirit which as of today is being kept in. The effects of a “handshake in space” have far reaching consequences, after all.

The "Apollo-Soyuz Handshake," a key moment in U.S.-Soviet space relations.

The “Apollo-Soyuz Handshake,” a key moment in U.S.-Soviet space relations. Source: NASA

The 1975 “Apollo-Soyuz” mission, the first joint United States-Soviet mission in space, was marked by a handshake between astronaut and cosmonaut in orbit. More than a simple rendezvous maneuver, it was symbolic of the broader detente that was occurring between the two Cold War adversaries at the time. Sharing mission information and precious spacecraft technology with the Soviets – the same fears which today are keeping NASA engineers from working with their Chinese counterparts – entailed vulnerability on both countries’ parts. Sharing technology could lead to the recognition of key weaknesses or shortcomings; it could give the opponent the upper hand. Those very vulnerabilities, if seen in another light, were the underpinnings of a more peaceful world in the making – they represented trust. It is hard, in this current geopolitical environment and this present day, to “trust” the Chinese in many aspects. They are the United States’ quickly emerging rival in the Asia-Pacific; they are a developing military competitor; they are a significant source of foreign espionage and theft. Yet these are the messy realities of our international system, and are perhaps unavoidable. There are areas abound where differences can and will divide the United States and China, where our two countries will have disagreements, perhaps even tensions. We are headed, with policies that preclude cooperation and mutual support, toward another chilly “Cold War.” Yet space, as the Apollo-Soyuz “handshake” demonstrated powerfully in 1975, offers the opportunity to set aside our Earthly differences for a bigger and more timeless goal – that of exploration, that of discovery. And, to a degree and in its own way, cooperation in space, the building of trust in space, trickles down into Earthly affairs as well.

With this in mind, perhaps the presence of the Chinese in “The Martian” – as faultless protagonists, no less – is one of the movie’s stronger aspects, despite its glaring inaccuracy. For, perhaps its important that we recognize that cooperation is always stronger than confrontation and containment and strike the ban in place on working in space with our future Asian rival. After all, we may one day have a Martian who will owe them his life.

Why Water on Mars Poses Problems for NASA

On September 28th, 2015, in what could rightfully be considered one of the most significant announcements in the history of space exploration, planetary scientists studying Mars revealed a spectacular discovery – liquid water is, most likely, currently flowing on the surface of our solar system’s dry and rusty 4th planet. While astronomers and scientists widely suspected that liquid water had existed on the planet’s surface at some point in its 4 billion year history, as made evident by in-situ and in-orbit experiments and analysis carried out by a panoply of spacecraft, landers, and rovers, the present day status of that water was an uncertainty. Orbital and surface observations of Mars revealed a landscape rich in the types of surface topography and chemical composition that correspond to the presence of liquid water, but no water itself. Perhaps the last of Mars’ liquid surface water had sublimated into and out of the planet’s thin atmosphere; perhaps it was left trapped in the planet’s icy polar caps or in reservoirs underneath the planet’s surface. Mars may have once been a wet planet, but is it at all a wet planet any longer?

The dark streaks seen running down these Martian hillsides are examples of "recurring slope lineae," thought to be evidence of liquid water flows.

The dark streaks seen running down these Martian hillsides are examples of “recurring slope lineae,” thought to be evidence of liquid water flows. Source: NASA

At last, this uncertainty was shattered with some confidence by a report analyzing photographs taken from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been studying the planet from orbit since 2006. These photographs were of peculiar Martian surface features called “recurring slope lineae,” dark streaks on the slopes of Martian hills which appear to ebb during Mars’ cooler seasons and flow during warm seasons. While these features would by appearance alone seem to hint at the presence of some flowing liquid darkening the Martian soil, the authors of this report went further with their investigation by exploring the “recurring slope lineae” using the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s imaging spectrometer, an instrument that analyzes the chemical composition of the Martian surface. What they found in these downhill flows was a clue crucial in resolving their nature – the presence of hydrated salts.

The relationship between hydrated salts, liquid water, and seasonal downhill flows is a complex yet connected one. Hydrated salts lower the freezing point of Martian liquid water, similar to how salts on Earth cause ice and snow to melt more rapidly. The specific composition of the hydrated minerals found by the imaging spectrometer, known as perchlorates, have been shown to keep liquids from freezing even when conditions are as cold as negative 94 degrees Fahrenheit. During Mars’ warmer months, the freezing point would be low enough to allow shallow subsurface water to wick to the surface and darken and muddy the Martian soil as it is dragged downhill. Taken together, the dark streaking effect of the “recurring slope lineae” and the presence of hydrated salts around them is the most significant evidence yet of liquid water on the surface of today’s Mars.

Obviously, this announcement has left many in the space community excited, in particular the astrobiologists and scientists studying the possibility that Mars had, or has, life. As anyone who’s taken a high school biology course would know, water is a crucial ingredient in the conditions we understand to be conducive to the formation and sustenance of life. Indeed, life as we know it wouldn’t exist without the presence of water, and our search for extraterrestrial life is accordingly narrowed on the places where conditions are suitable for liquid water. Mars, with its wet past, is a prime candidate for potential life beyond the Earth – hence the unparalleled attention and effort given to exploring and studying the planet. The discovery of flowing liquid water on the planet’s surface thus offers a tantalizing opportunity to learn more about Mars’ wet past and present conditions, and perhaps even provides the chance of finding the signs and evidence of life. Even if the water producing the “recurring slope lineae” is inundated with salts, and thereby chemically unsuitable for life, studying it will offer clues about its as-of-yet unknown source. Figuring out where the water comes from, whether it be from ice melting underground, underground liquid reservoirs, or some other potential source, will be a key first step in determining the characteristics and composition of Mars’ present-day water and whether it may indeed be conducive for life.

"Recurring slope lineae" on Mars. Source: NASA

“Recurring slope lineae” on Mars. Source: NASA

To that end, the opportunities for future study seem limitless. NASA’s Curiosity Rover, currently operating on Mars and studying the planet for signs of habitability, is within driving distance of a mountain called Mount Sharp, which might contain these “recurring slope lineae.” The Mars 2020 Rover, scheduled to arrive at the planet early in the next decade, will be equipped with sensitive instruments that could analyze these spots with far greater detail than the orbiting satellites today, and indeed could even detect the bio-signatures of life past or present. Future human expeditions to the planet could conduct investigations on the water that would far exceed any robotic mission in scale and scope. With all this, it would seem there is great incentive to explore these peculiar Martian surface features and potentially answer one of humanity’s greatest and most lingering questions – can and does life exist elsewhere?

But, not so fast. While liquid water on the surface of Mars offers the opportunity for tremendous scientific and exploratory insights, it also poses an enormous problem which will need to be dealt with – that of contamination.

Life on Earth has proven itself to be extremely resilient and adaptable to even the harshest of conditions. Indeed, some “extremophiles” have shown themselves capable of surviving the deathly conditions of interplanetary space. Some organisms on Earth have demonstrated the ability to survive in conditions similar to those on Mars, and even in the exotic extremities of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. As such, there is a sincere and credible fear among planetary scientists and mission planners, dating back to the beginning of the “Space Age,” that the exploration of these other worlds could lead to their contamination by organisms of an Earthly origin. While this may be a concern of marginal worth for “dead” worlds such as our Moon or Mercury and for extremely inhospitable planets such as Venus, it is of far more validity when it comes to a potentially habitable place such as Mars. Indeed, now that flowing liquid water has been found on Mars, water which very well may harbor or support life, these concerns are of an utmost importance. Should this water be contaminated through any in-situ study, its scientific worth toward discovering and analyzing extraterrestrial life would be tainted and therefore negligible.

Recurring slope lineae on Mars

“Recurring slope lineae” on Mars. Source: NASA

Far from just a noble goal held by scientists, the effort to prevent the contamination of other worlds, known as planetary protection, is explicitly enumerated in decades-old policy and practice. The primary piece of international law dealing with conduct and activity in outer space, known as the Outer Space Treaty, contains a section specifically dealing with planetary protection. The United States, as a signatory to the Outer Space Treaty, is therefore bound to an adherence of its provisions. Article IX of the treaty states that “Parties to the Treaty shall pursue studies of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination and also adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter and, where necessary, shall adopt appropriate measures for this purpose.” As is the case with most of the language in the Outer Space Treaty, which was written with a degree of ambiguity so as to not unduly constrain state activity in outer space during the active era of the “Space Race,” there exists a legal uncertainty over what “harmful contamination” entails. For NASA, this language has been interpreted as entailing the protection of scientific investigation; indeed, NASA policy explicity states that “the conduct of scientific investigations of possible extraterrestrial life forms, precursors, and remnants must not be jeopardized.” One can easily see how the study of flowing liquid water on present day Mars may jeopardize that aim.

To put these policy provisions into practice, NASA follows a set of planetary protection guidelines issued by an interdisciplinary, international committee known as the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR). The COSPAR guidelines establish a set of categories, dependent on the characteristics of the world being visited and the nature of the exploration mission, which delineate what steps and practices must be taken to ensure that contamination from Earth-origin organisms does not occur. In the case of Mars exploration, which falls under Category IV of the COSPAR guidelines, contamination controls included requirements to reduce biological contamination of the spacecraft, constraints on spacecraft operating procedures, the taking of inventories of organic constituents of the spacecraft and organic samples, as well as the documentation of spacecraft operations, impact potential, and the location of landing or impact points on the planetary surface. Often, a rigorous sterilization process within a biologically-contained “clean room” is a major step in ensuring that biological contaminants are accounted for and dealt with.

NASA's Curiosity Rover being assembled in a "clean room," a biologically-controlled space designed to minimize biological contamination.

NASA’s Curiosity Rover being assembled in a “clean room,” a biologically-controlled space designed to minimize biological contamination. Source: NASA

Yet, even then, the current processes for dealing with biological contaminants are inadequate for the scope of a mission hoping to directly investigate Mars’ “recurring slope lineae.” The most advanced of NASA’s Mars rovers, the Curiosity Rover, which itself is on a mission to determine the habitability of the planet and whether life exists or existed there, fell under Category IV-B of the COSPAR guidelines; the category above it, Category IV-C, which entails even more stringent measures for preventing biological contamination, would be the baseline for any mission coming into direct contact with Martian surface water. As such, even the Curiosity Rover, if it were to find liquid water flows on or around Mount Sharp, would be prohibited from the direct study and analysis of them. To date, no spacecraft or interplanetary mission has been designed and sterilized per the COSPAR Category IV-C guidelines.

Herein lies the matter of why water on Mars poses problems for NASA’s future missions of scientific investigation. Any spacecraft sent to the “recurring slope lineae” would need to be sterilized entirely  per COSPAR Category IV-C guidelines, yet the sterilization process established by this category may be prohibitive. As mentioned by UNSW astrobiologist Malcolm Walter, the intense heat and ultraviolet radiation used to kill biological contaminants residing on space-bound rovers and landers would, if used to meet Category IV-C requirements, also destroy or severely cripple these spacecrafts’ sensitive electronics and instruments. Any human missions to Mars, aside from still being decades away, would undoubtedly carry far more contaminants and entail more significant possibilities for contamination than a robotic mission; aligning a human mission with the COSPAR guidelines has yet to be seriously attempted.

As such, while there is tantalizing evidence of liquid water currently flowing on Mars and while the insights to be gained from the direct study of this water are clearly recognizable and scientifically desirable, actually conducting such an investigation is currently prohibited – and may be for the considerable future. NASA will need to develop strategies, technologies, and procedures, or revisit and revise existing ones, which will allow spacecraft designers and mission planners to bring their hardware in line with the COSPAR Category IV-C sterilization requirements. Fortunately, significant thought and effort has been made and is being made toward that end. In 2006, the National Academy of Sciences released a comprehensive report which analyzed the potential contamination of Mars and issued recommendations to NASA which could resolve the current issues surrounding Category IV-C and future Mars exploration missions, particularly those interacting with areas on Mars where life may be present. In short, the report found that many of the existing policies and practices for preventing the contamination of Mars are outdated in light of new scientific evidence about Mars and current research on the ability of microorganisms to survive in severe conditions on Earth. It concluded that a host of research and development efforts are needed to update planetary protection requirements so as to reduce the uncertainties in preventing the contamination of Mars.

"Recurring slope lineae" on Mars. Source: NASA

“Recurring slope lineae” on Mars. Source: NASA

However, the report noted that updating planetary protection practices, so as to enable a robotic or human exploration mission to areas such as Mars’ “recurring slope lineae,” will require additional budgetary, management, and infrastructure support and will require a roadmap, including a transition plan with interim requirements, as well as a schedule. This could pose a significant challenge for the United States’ cash-strapped space agency, which may not have the money or resources to undertake such an effort. Yet, until it does, or until another approach toward resolving the issue of possibly contaminating Mars’ flowing liquid water is found, NASA will, for better or worse, need to stay away from directly interacting with this tremendous discovery.

Of course, even despite these challenges, NASA still has it within its present-day capabilities to investigate these fascinating features in further depth. Orbital observations of the “recurring slope lineae” could shed further insight on the patterns and characteristics of their flow, which would allow for a more accurate modeling of the surface water and its possible subsurface sources. If the Curiosity Rover, or any other Mars rover, found “recurring slope lineae” within its line of sight, it could take photographs and make direct observations from a distance. Up-close surface observations of these water flows would be of far more scientific value than those currently taken by spacecraft miles up in orbit. Alternatively, in a more unconventional approach, NASA could deploy hardware upon the Martian surface which would self-produce 3D-printed sterile robots that would then be sent to directly study the water. NASA is already working on such technology.

The recent announcement of liquid water found flowing on today’s Mars is of tremendous significance, and raises a number of major questions. Could this water harbor life? What does it say about the present or past state of Mars’ habitability? Perhaps most importantly, how will NASA develop the capabilities to actually investigate this discovery directly? The water is there; now its on NASA along with the scientific and technological community to develop strategies for “tasting” it. Water on Mars may pose problems for NASA today, but it need not in the future.

We Should Be Excited About the Next Five Years of Space Exploration. Here’s What’s Coming.


It should be hard for anyone with a sense of adventure and an optimism for the future to not be excited about the exploration of outer space. With every new mission into space comes the prospect for surprising and thrilling discoveries that serve to expand our knowledge of the mysterious universe in which we live. Every new mission reflects the development of our technology, represents the pushing of frontiers, and demonstrates the growth of humanity’s foothold in space. With every new mission, we move a little bit closer to achieving our future among the stars. The exploration of outer space is perhaps one of the most daring, challenging, and exhilarating ventures our species has ever undertaken. So, naturally, we should already be excited about our prospects for space. But, looking forward five years from July 2015, the close-future of space exploration promises to be of great significance… and of even greater excitement than we see today.

Having carried out the first lunar landing in 37 years, China's Chang'e 3 lander rests upon the Moon. Source: Space.com

Having carried out the first lunar landing in 37 years in late 2013, China’s Chang’e 3 lander rests upon the Moon. Source: Space.com

How so? After all, the last few years of space exploration have seen a number of incredible achievements; to such a degree, indeed, that we could see it as one of the most thrilling periods of space exploration since the height of the “Space Race.” To name a few of these achievements: in 2012, NASA’s Curiosity Rover began a new era of robotic exploration on Mars and has since unlocked a number of secrets about the “Red Planet’s” wet, perhaps even habitable, past. The Commercial Cargo program began deliveries of cargo and supplies to the International Space Station by private companies in 2012. China’s hastily developing space program pulled off a major feat by delivering a rover and lander upon the Moon in late 2013 with its Chang’e 3 mission. This marked the first landing upon the Moon since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976, and was perhaps China’s most ambitious space project to date. Meanwhile, India became the first Asian power to reach Mars, and the first country to do so on its first attempt, when it successfully launched and placed into Martian orbit its Mars Orbiter Mission spacecraft in 2014. NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, which visited Vesta – an asteroid belt proto-planet – in 2011 and the dwarf world Ceres in 2015, became the first craft to explore two extraterrestrial bodies in one mission and the first to arrive at a dwarf planet. In 2014, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission became the first to conduct a landing upon a comet when its Philae lander touched down upon the surface of Comet 67P. Finally, the secrets of Pluto were revealed when the New Horizons spacecraft made the first-ever flyby of that distant world in July, 2015.

The dwarf world Ceres' mysterious bright spots, discovered by NASA"s Dawn spacecraft in 2015. Credit: NASA

The dwarf world Ceres’ mysterious bright spots, discovered by NASA”s Dawn spacecraft in 2015. Source: NASA

Obviously, a lot of exciting activity has taken place in space over the past couple of years. Major “firsts” were achieved, significant new discoveries and insights were acquired, and important new players entered the realm of space exploration. To be sure, these accomplishments are incredible and important by their merits alone. But, significantly, they appear to represent an increasing energy and enthusiasm for space exploration and activity that looks likely to continue into the coming few years. Indeed, looking ahead to the next few years, we can see some continuing trends: a hastening of pace and ambition by upcoming space powers, major new missions to previously unexplored or under-explored places, and the continuing development of the private space industry. Meanwhile, a number of exciting missions to the more frequently-visited worlds still promise to provide answers and new insights for astronomers’ and scientists’ remaining questions.

It should be remembered, of course, that plans and policy are always beholden to economic conditions and political circumstances. Design problems and budget issues often threaten the timeline or feasibility of future missions. It should be expected that not every mission in this list will be launched on its current proposed date or with the characteristics that are currently proposed. Yet nonetheless, with so much on the timeline for the next few years, it would be surprising if none of it came to fruition. And, with much of what is proposed over the next few years being of major significance or scope, the future of space should be, even with some cut missions or revisions of schedules, incredible promising. As such, we should be excited about the coming years of space exploration. Here’s why:

Close to Home

The missions which tend to grab the attention of the public and the scientific community most often are those to distant planets and deep into the Solar System. Perhaps this is because these types of missions most evidently push the frontiers of discovery and exploration. Yet it is closer to home, in low-Earth-orbit or at the Moon, that the bulk of humanity’s activity in outer space takes place. It is close to home, too, where the future of human spaceflight will necessarily be developed. Only through the building-up of our local space infrastructure and through the nearby testing of spacecraft and technologies will we create the capabilities needed to take more humans deeper into space. Such is one reason why the next few years of activity will be so exciting – much of it will take place near the Earth, and much of it will build the foundation for a heightened human presence in space.

Commercial Cargo Ramps Up and Commercial Crew Goes Full Swing

As discussed in an earlier post, NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo programs represent a crucial policy and paradigm shift for the American space program. By contracting private industry to carry out cargo resupply and crew ferrying missions in low-Earth-orbit, NASA can focus its energy on the exploration of deeper space, can foster the domestic commercial space industry, and can divest from a reliance on Russia for access to the International Space Station. In all likelihood, the commercial programs are harbingers of a new era of activity in space – one in which public exploration efforts combine with private commercial markets to allow easier, cheaper, and more innovative access to space.

SpaceX's Dragon V2 spacecraft, designed to carry astronauts to the ISS. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX’s Dragon V2 spacecraft, designed to carry astronauts to the ISS as a part of the Commercial Crew Program. Source: SpaceX

The Commercial Cargo Program is already running today, with SpaceX and Orbital ATK sending their respective Dragon and Cygnus spacecraft on resupply runs to the ISS. The current round of contracts (known as CRS-1) is expected to run through 2016, while a second round of contracts (CRS-2), to be awarded this year, should extend the commercial cargo program through 2024. Needless to say, then, the space industry should expect to see considerable levels of government support and funding – and hopefully considerable development as a result – for at least the next decade. What’s also promising is that the competition for CRS-2 contracts will be open to a host of a private space companies not awarded contracts under CRS-1. Among the companies that have issued proposals for this second round are SpaceX and Orbital ATK along with Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Sierra Nevada. Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser, a winged lifting-body spacecraft which failed to win a spot among the CRS-1 contracts, has already undergone considerable amounts of testing and technology demonstration. Meanwhile, Boeing hopes to convert its CST-100 spacecraft, designed to ferry astronauts for the Commercial Crew program, into a cargo-resupply platform. While the eventual awardees for CRS-2 remain to be seen, it is a promising sign for the future of the commercial space industry that such a large pool of companies are in the running.

Cargo missions to the International Space Station are doubtlessly crucial, but starting in 2017, the commercial program will take on an element of added importance – astronauts. SpaceX, using its Dragon V2 spacecraft, is scheduled to make a manned test flight in April of 2017, followed by Boeing’s CST-100 in July of 2017. The first scheduled crew mission to the ISS is set for sometime in late 2017. Already, NASA has selected the first crew members, an assortment of some of the astronaut corps’s best, to be carried aboard these private spacecraft to the International Space Station.

CGI-imagery of Boeing's CST-100 spacecraft, also designed to carry astronauts to the ISS. Credit: Boeing

CGI-imagery of Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft, also designed to carry astronauts to the ISS. Source: Boeing

The future of NASA’s commercial programs may be under threat from budget reductions in Congress, but, by and large, the agency and a number of high-profile leaders remain vocally committed to continuation and the development of the program. Considering the extent of money and time that NASA has dumped into the private space industry, and keeping in mind that NASA’s exploration road-map and future plans are contingent upon the success of commercial deliveries to the International Space Station, it would be quite a surprise if commercial crew and cargo didn’t become a mainstay of the low-Earth-orbit space infrastructure. And, with private spaceflight taking off over the next few years, we can hope to expect even greater developments in space – space tourism, asteroid mining, orbital hotels and outposts, private moon landings… the list goes on and on.

NASA Takes a Trip Around the Moon

NASA has ambitious plans to launch American astronauts on an exploration mission to Mars by the close of the 2030s. To achieve that aim, the agency has already begun the development of a beyond-Earth-orbit spacecraft, Orion, and a rocket larger than the iconic Saturn V, the SLS, to carry it there. These are likely to be the vehicles that will conduct any manned mission beyond the Earth’s neighborhood. But, as should be expected, these technologies will need to be put through rigorous testing in order to ensure astronaut safety and mission success. A part of this testing process will be sending these spacecraft into space, exposing them to the conditions and variables expected during a mission to Mars. That’s where NASA’s Exploration Mission 1 comes in.

The current mission plan for NASA's Exploration Mission 1 in 2018. Credit: NASASpaceFlight

The current mission plan for NASA’s Exploration Mission 1 in 2018. Source: NASASpaceFlight

Sometime in late September, 2018, NASA will launch its Orion spacecraft atop a scaled-down version of the SLS on a trajectory that will take it around the Moon and back. During the 7 to 10 day long mission, the uncrewed spacecraft will go the furthest into space that a human-rated spacecraft has ever traveled, circling around the Moon 30,000 miles farther than Apollo 13, the previous record-holder. The mission will also be the first time since 1972, when Apollo 17, the last of the Apollo missions, set down on the Moon, that a human-rated spacecraft has traveled beyond low-Earth-orbit. Needless to say, Exploration Mission 1 will be the precursor to some bigger, better, and more exciting human missions to come.

Among the technologies being tested during this mission are the spacecraft’s life-support capabilities, which will need to last for months during an extended mission to Mars, and the spacecraft’s heat shielding. Orion’s trajectory around the Moon will be such that it will experience incredibly intense forces during re-entry back to the Earth, as will also be expected during a return from a mission to Mars. While the spacecraft will be pushed to the brink during this mission, if all of its systems manage to check out perfectly, NASA will be one step closer to its current endgame goal: landing humans on Mars. In the nearer future, if EM-1 goes to plan, the agency will also be better poised to carry out Exploration Mission 2. Tentatively, this involves a human mission in 2021 to a captured asteroid placed into orbit around the Moon. Doubtlessly, if EM-2 is carried out as planned, it will be the most ambitious and remarkable human mission in space since the Moon landings half a century ago.

China Builds a Space Station

Emblematic of the People’s Republic of China’s rapid rise to prominence on the world stage, the Chinese space program has undergone considerable and equally rapid g3xrowth and development over the past decade. Indeed, the Chinese program, being at a stage of development and application roughly akin to the United States’ Apollo era, is an excellent case-study in the strategic and rhetorical importance of a space program for emerging powers. The Chinese government has evidently calculated that maintaining an active space program, especially with human flight, will help fulfill its domestic and international goals in the coming decades. Such is why, in the past decade and a half, China has succeeded in becoming the third country to send humans into space, has carried out sophisticated in-space maneuvers, built a prototype space station, and begun an ambitious lunar exploration program. Barring an economic collapse or some unforeseen disaster, it is unlikely that this pace of development will slow in the coming years.


Chinese astronauts aboard the Tiangong 1 space station. Source: xinhuanet

In fact, it is in these coming years that China plans to pull off its largest feat in space yet – the construction of a significant modular space station. The Chinese quest to construct a space station has been years in the running – in 2012, China launched Tiangong 1, a prototype station designed to test relevant technologies and capabilities. With an interior habitable volume of only 15 cubic meters and enough room for two sleeping bunks and exercise gear, the station is small. Nonetheless, it has allowed the Chinese to practice crucial skills such as manual and automatic docking and undocking, and has proven China’s ability to maintain an orbital outpost. Tiangong 1 was the target of two visits by astronauts, the first by the Shenzhou 9 mission in 2012 and the second a 15-day stay by Shenzhou 10 in 2013.

Tiangong 1 is to be followed in 2016 by Tiangong 2, a slightly larger station of similar design. Sometime after Tiangong 2’s launch, the next planned manned  mission, Shenzhou  11, will make a stay at the station. Tiangong 2 will also be visited by the Tianzhou spacecraft, an automated resupply vessel derived from the Tiangong design. This will be China’s first experiment with cargo supply crafts, which are, as the past and present automated resupply missions to the International Space Station have proven, crucial for the maintenance of a large scale, long-term space station.


A Chinese engineering concept drawing of the finished Chinese modular space station. Source: Spacenews

Then, at some point between 2018 and 2020, China will launch Tiangong 3, the base component to its large, modular space station. When combined with two laboratory modules, which will be launched between 2020 and 2023, the station will allow three-member crews an extended stay of up to six months. To support the Chinese space program’s scientific mission, the station will include space for multiple experiments, an external exposure platform, and equipment for Earth and astronomical observation. With multiple docking ports, simultaneous resupply and crew visits to the station will be able to take place. Should construction go according to plan, the station is expected to stay in orbit until at least 2032.

The construction of the Chinese space station should be seen as reflective of China’s long-term ambitions for human spaceflight. Maintaining a human presence in space marks China as among the United States and Russia as a leading space power. Once China finishes its completion, it will become the second country, behind Russia, to independently build a modular space station. Not even the United States, which has had Russian and other international support in constructing the International Space Station, has done that.

China, Japan, and India Race to the Moon

A new “space race” is budding in Asia as a number of developing space powers set their eyes on ever more ambitious plans for their programs. For India, China, and Japan, which all have space programs with varying levels of capability but which are all rapidly accelerating in development, the Moon offers an excellent target for the next steps into space. After all, the Moon allows for the testing and application of a wide range of space activity – extraterrestrial landings and orbits, surface operations, and sample returns, to name a few – and is close enough to Earth to be more easily reached by a developing space program. With each of these countries trying to out-compete the others in the realm of space, so as to enjoy the benefits of geopolitical prestige back on Earth, and with China having already carried out a successful lunar landing in 2013, India and Japan have accelerated their plans for the Moon. Hoping to stay ahead of the competition, China too has begun work on an ambitious plan for lunar activity in the coming years. The stage has therefore been set for an exciting new era of lunar exploration.

An artist's rendition of Japan's SLIM spacecraft landing upon the Moon. Credit: JAXA

An artist’s rendition of Japan’s SLIM spacecraft landing upon the Moon. Source: JAXA

Japan has once before reached the Moon, having placed its Selene spacecraft into lunar orbit in 2007. Yet, with China placing its rover on the Moon in 2013 and  India pulling off a mission to Mars in 2014, Japan is now in the position of having to play catch-up to reassert its leadership as an Asian space power. As such, policymakers and scientists for JAXA, the Japanese space agency, have announced their plans to conduct a lunar landing by 2018. While the specifics of the SLIM mission (“Smart Lander for Investigating Moon”) are yet to be decided, and may or may not involve the delivery of a robotic rover, Japan’s scientists believe that this mission will help perfect the soft-landing technologies necessary for a future mission to Mars.

India, too, has visited the Moon once before, having sent its home-grown Chandrayaan 1 spacecraft to orbit the Moon in 2008. A few days after the orbital insertion, an impactor attached to the spacecraft plunged into the Moon’s surface, making India the fourth country in history to touch the lunar surface. Now, the Indians hope to accomplish a similar feat as the Chinese – successfully conducting a soft-landing upon the Moon and deploying a rover. This next Indian mission to the Moon, Chandrayaan 2,  is expected to launch in late 2017 or early 2018. It will consist of an orbiter spacecraft, a lander, and a rover roughly the size of the Chinese Yutu rover. The mission will mark the first time the Indians have employed a rover for space exploration. Once on the lunar surface, the rover and lander will conduct mineralogical and elemental studies and experiments.

Mission plan for the Chandrayaan 2 mission. Source: ISRO

Mission plan for the Chandrayaan 2 mission. Source: ISRO

Chandrayaan 2’s development history is also of some interest and significance. Originally it was slated to be a joint Russian-Indian mission, with Russia supplying the lander and the rover design and Indian building the orbiter. However, Russia withdrew from the project following the failure of its Fobos-Grunt mission to Mars in 2011, leaving India solely in charge of its development and pushing back Chandrayaan 2’s launch date. With all of the mission’s technology being Indian designed and constructed, the Indian space program has therefore emerged more capable despite the production setbacks and alterations to schedule.

Meanwhile, China continues to expand its lunar exploration program with increasingly ambitious goals. Having already seen successes with an orbiter, Chang’e 2, and a lander, Chang’e 3, the Chinese are now hoping to pull off the even more impressive feat of a lunar sample return. The next Chinese mission to the Moon, Chang’e 5, will attempt to do just that, conducting the first sample return in over 40 years; the last one, the Soviet Union’s Luna 26 mission, took place in 1976. Planned for launch in 2017, Chang’e 5 will feature an orbiter and a lander which will touch down upon the Moon and scoop up surface material. Once finished with its surface operations, the lander will then launch the material aboard a capsule back to the orbiter, aboard which it will then be returned to Earth.


Chinese scientists examine the Chang’e 5-T1 capsule, designed to practice the technologies needed on the Chang’e 5 mission, following its high-speed reentry to Earth in early 2015. Source: Spacenews

A sample return mission is no easy feat. Pulling off a high-speed reentry after a lunar-return trajectory requires sophisticated heat shielding technology and precision targeting abilities. The Chinese also hope to conduct a rendezvous in lunar orbit during their mission, linking up their filled sample capsule with the orbiter for the return to Earth; not even the Soviets attempted such a maneuver during their past sample return missions. To practice and refine those capabilities, China sent the Chang’e 5-T1 spacecraft, a mockup of the Chang’e 5 lunar sample capsule, on a orbital trajectory around the Moon. This also marked the first time a spacecraft traveled to the Moon and returned in over 40 years. While in lunar space, the Chang’e 5-T1 spacecraft practiced a number of maneuvers associated with the planned rendezvous and then successfully made its return to Earth in  early 2015, demonstrating China’s ability to achieve its high-sighted goals. Significantly, many of the skills and technologies needed to carry out a sample return mission, such as rendezvous in lunar space and high-speed reentry shielding, can be applied for human missions to the Moon. Indeed, many see the Chang’e missions as testbeds to practice the technologies needed for a manned Chinese mission to the Moon sometime in the coming decades.

While a lunar sample return mission is both technically impressive and prestigious for a developing space power like China, the Chinese are not satisfied with stopping there. Instead, they want to capture another lunar exploration “first,” putting them in the ranks of the United States and Russia as a pioneering lunar power. That “first” will come in the form of a landing on the far-side of the Moon sometime in 2020 or 2021; while NASA has mulled plans about a landing on that side of the Moon, it has never been attempted before. The Chang’e 4 spacecraft, a copy of Chang’e 3 built as a backup for that mission, will deploy a lander and a rover to study the lunar “dark side.” Such a mission will be technically complicated and challenging, as the lander will be out of direct contact with controllers on Earth and will need to rely on relaying data to an orbiter spacecraft.  If successful, the mission will not only be an impressive accomplishment for China’s lunar program, but will surely reveal some fascinating insights into an area never explored up-close before.

The Inner Solar System

Exploration beyond the Earth and into the depths of the Solar System represents the next stages of of humanity’s foray into the final frontier. Through study of the other planets, we gain deep insights into the history and development of not only our Solar System, but of the Earth and life upon it. While the outer Solar System, with its massive gas planets and cold, icy worlds, is a fascinating target for exploration, the inner Solar System, with its rocky, terrestrial planets, is perhaps more suited during this earlier period of exploration. Flight times to the inner Solar System’s planets are usually shorter and less challenging and worlds with fascinating pasts such as Venus and Mars may reveal to us more about the early Earth and perhaps even life beyond it. The inner Solar System is likely where we will set our eyes in the further future when planning the first human exploration missions and colonization efforts beyond our home planet. It makes sense, then, that the next few years of space exploration will see a number of missions to the various worlds and planets of our inner Solar System.

Another Mission to Mercury

The innermost planet Mercury, as seen by the MESSENGER spacecraft during a flyby in 2008 Source: NASA

The innermost planet Mercury, as seen by the MESSENGER spacecraft during a flyby in 2008 Source: NASA

Tidally locked in a close orbit around the Sun, our Solar System’s innermost planet is a fascinating world of intense heat and radiation on one side and cold and darkness on the other. Yet, because the orbital mechanics required to get to Mercury are incredibly difficult, few missions have been sent there. Only NASA’s Mariner 10 spacecraft, which flew by the planet a number of times in the mid-1970s, and the MESSENGER spacecraft, which became the first to enter orbit around Mercury in 2011, have visited the planet. However, since MESSENGER’s deorbit in 2015, there has been no active exploration of this small and under-studied world.

The European Space Agency and the Japanese hope to change that with their joint  BepiColombo mission, planned for launch in 2017. Most of the spacecraft equipment and design is being provided by the ESA for this mission, which has main responsibility for the mission, while Japan will help provide Earth-based tracking and control operations. The BepiColombo mission will consist of two orbiters launched together, the Mercury Planetary Orbiter and the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter, which will provide a comprehensive study of Mercury’s magnetic fields, magnetosphere, interior structure, and surface.  The orbiters’ transfer stage, which will propel the mission through interplanetary space on its way to Mercury, will be powered by a highly-efficient ion engine; this will be the first time the European Space Agency has used ion engines, which are becoming increasingly popular choices for interplanetary probes and spacecraft, one of its missions.

An artist's impression of the BepiColombo mission in orbit around Mercury. Source: ESA

An artist’s impression of the BepiColombo mission in orbit around Mercury. Source: ESA

However, because of the slow acceleration provided by the ion thrusters aboard the spacecraft as well as the difficulty of maneuvering into a stable orbit around Mercury, the BepiColombo mission won’t actually arrive in orbit around the planet until sometime in 2024. To get there, the mission will be sent on an arching cruise around the Sun that involve a number of gravity-assist maneuvers around other planets. During the 7 year interplanetary flight, the spacecraft will visit and fly past Earth in 2018, Venus in 2019 and 2020, and then make five fly-by encounters of Mercury between 2020 and 2023. By then, the spacecraft’s velocity relative to Mercury should be low enough for it to be captured by the planet’s gravity, at which point the science mission may begin.

Japan Tries Again at Venus

When it comes to planetary exploration, Japan’s record has been mixed with successes and failures. Its first mission to another planet, the Nozomi spacecraft, failed to enter a Martian orbit after its launch in 1998 and was soon abandoned. After a decade-long hiatus from interplanetary travel, Japan then launched its Akatsuki spacecraft on a mission to Venus in 2010. At Venus, Akatsuki was supposed to study the planet’s complex meteorology and determine whether volcanic activity is taking place on the world’s surface. Yet, while the IKAROS spacecraft, which accompanied Akatsuki on its flight, succeeded in its primary mission of flying past Venus while testing solar-sail technology, Akatsuki failed to enter a Venusian orbit because of faulty thrusters and instead remains stuck in an orbit around the Sun.

A graphic of Japan's Akatsuki spacecraft, which will reattempt an orbit around Venus in late 2015. Source: JAXA

A graphic of Japan’s Akatsuki spacecraft, which will reattempt an orbit around Venus in late 2015. Source: JAXA

Not all hope is lost, however. Using the propellent still aboard the spacecraft, Japanese scientists have plans to salvage the mission by attempting another orbital insertion when Akatsuki makes a return to Venus in late 2015. Should this attempt succeed, Akatsuki will be placed into orbit around the planet, although at a much greater distance than was originally planned. Yet it remains to be seen whether the spacecraft will survive until its encounter with Venus, considering that it is now well past the design’s expected length of operation. Still, Japanese scientists have expressed their optimism that the probe will remain active, having placed it in a deep-hibernation mode until it reaches Venus. There is also the issue of heating; Akatsuki is making a number of very close passes to the Sun during its flight back to Venus which may cause sensitive instrumentation to deteriorate.

Should Japan manage to save the Akatsuki mission, it will not only be an impressive demonstration of resolving a technically difficult situation but an opportunity to explore further one of the solar system’s most impressive planets. Like Mercury, Venus is a world of extremes – runaway greenhouse heating has left its surface hot enough to melt lead. Yet in terms of size, mass, and distance from the Sun, Venus is Earth’s “sister planet,” closely resembling our home world. Determining whether Venus remains volcanically active and the nature of its meteorology, both aims of the Akatsuki mission, will go a long ways toward expanding our understanding of the second planet from the Sun.

More Missions to Mars

As a world which once harbored water, a rich atmosphere, and perhaps even life, and as the prime target for an eventual human interplanetary mission, Mars has been a prime focus for the world’s astronomers, scientists, and space programs. Over the past decades, the cadence of Mars exploration has quickened dramatically; as of today, there are 5 functioning spacecraft in Mars orbit and 2  rovers still operating on the Martian surface. Surely, even as new missions are sent to the Red Planet, this fleet of exploration vehicles will continue to provide us with some incredible insights into Mars’ history and environment and will continue to smash records – for example, NASA’s Opportunity Rover, which has explored the planet’s surface for a remarkable 11 years,  keeps pushing back the record as the longest operating surface exploration vehicle in history. Still, while the current and ongoing missions to Mars are incredibly exciting and important, the next coming years will see an even more exciting, newer phase of Mars exploration – one with upcoming players, more sophisticated technology, more ambitious aims, and more advanced scientific capabilities. After all, there is still very much left to learn about our Solar System’s 4th planet.

A computer generated image of NASA's InSight lander, which will explore the Martian sub-surface sometime after launch in 2017. Source: NASA

A computer generated image of NASA’s InSight lander, which will explore the Martian sub-surface sometime after launch in 2016. Source: NASA

Slated for launch in 2016, NASA’s InSight lander will study Mar’s surface and sub-surface with seismographic and heat transfer instruments in order to determine the history of its geological evolution. This will help bring about a better understanding of the processes that helped shape the inner planets of the Solar System early in their formation. Prior to landing upon Mars, the spacecraft will also deploy a number of small cubesats which will relay data between InSight and Earth during the landing. These cubesats are part of a technology demonstration proving the feasibility of an interplanetary cubesat communication relay. In order to keep its budget low and stick to schedule, InSight was largely designed off the technology and hardware used for NASA’s earlier Phoenix mission to Mars.

The United Arab Emirates, whose young space program, formed only in July 2014, has limited experience  deploying an array of satellites, hopes to propel itself into the club of exploring powers with a mission to Mars set for sometime in the early 2020s. It will consist of an orbiter, Mars Hope, which will study the Martian atmosphere and climate. As the United Arab Emirates has no launch vehicle of its own to send the craft to Mars, the country’s scientists will need to rely on an outside contractor to supply the rocket. Nonetheless, if the United Arab Emirates manages to pull off such a mission, it will be an incredible feat; not only would it be the first Arab interplanetary mission in history, but would be a highly impressive demonstration of skill by a space program not even a decade old. With the mission having secured funding and design plans already drawn up, it appears as though the UAE is prepared and willing to take such a bold leap into space.

A graphic representation of the Trace Gas Orbiter and the EDM, both part of the first mission of the ExoMars program. Source: ESA

A graphic representation of the Trace Gas Orbiter and the EDM, both part of the first mission of the ExoMars program. Source: ESA

Yet perhaps the most ambitious project for Mars exploration in the coming few years is the European Space Agency’s ExoMars program, scheduled to run between 2016 and 2018. Consisting of multiple mission phases, first with an orbiter and a lander followed eventually by a rover, the program will investigate the Martian environment in a search to discover whether life ever existed there and whether it may still live there today. Equally important, the ExoMars missions will be important technology demonstrations for for future European exploration missions to Mars. Among the capabilities being tested are the landing of a large payload on the surface of Mars, surface mobility with a rover, access to Mar’s subsurface to acquire samples, and actual sample acquisition and analysis.

The first mission of the ExoMars program is set to launch in January 2016 and will arrive at Mars in late 2016. It will consist of the Trace Gas Orbiter and the Schiaparelli Entry, Descent, and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM). The spacecraft will launch together on a Russia Proton rocket and fly mated together to Mars. While in Martian orbit, the Trace Gas Orbiter will study the locations and nature of the sources which produce gases of possible biological importance, such as methane. This scientific mission is expected to begin in mid-2017 and will last for a period of at least one Martian year. The Orbiter will also provide a data and communications linkage with the EDM as the module makes its descent to the Martian surface and eventually serve as a relay for the ExoMars rover. The Orbiter will also scout out suitable landing locations for the eventual deployment of the rover.

The Schiaparelli EDM in its landing phase. Source: ESA

The Schiaparelli EDM in its landing phase. Source: ESA

The Schiaparelli EDM, meanwhile, will test the ESA’s ability to deliver payloads onto the surface of Mars by conducting a surface landing. It will separate from the Trace Gas Orbiter three days before descent, experience a controlled entry with the aid of massive parachutes that deploy while the spacecraft is traveling twice the speed of sound, and will then be slowly brought down with a powered landing. The EDM is targeted to land somewhere on Mar’s Meridiani Planum. This area interests scientists because it contains an ancient layer of hematite, an iron oxide that, on Earth, almost always forms in an environment containing liquid water. While primarily a technology demonstrator, the EDM will also carry a limited science suite; it will deploy a science package that will operate on the surface of Mars for a short duration after landing, last approximately 2-8 days.

Mar's ExoMars rover, to be deployed on Mars in 2018. Source: ESA

The European Space Agency’s ExoMars Rover, to be deployed on Mars in 2018. Source: ESA

Should all go according to plan with the first ExoMars mission, the ESA will then be set to move into phase two of the program, which consists of a rover on the Martian surface; this will be the first non-American rover on Mars. The ExoMars Rover, under development by the ESA, will be dedicated to exobiology and geochemistry research and study the Martian interior. Key among the rover’s scientific equipment will be a drill capable of digging samples from up to 6 feet beneath the Martian surface. After a launch in 2018 and an arrival at Mars in late 2018, the rover will be deployed on the surface with the aid of Russian-built descent module. Much of the vehicle’s surface operation will be conducted autonomously by on-board computers, much like NASA’s Curiosity Rover. Mission planners expect the rover to travel several miles during the span of its operation.

Proposed science instruments for NASA's Mars 2020 rover. Source: NASA

Proposed science instruments for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. Source: NASA

NASA also has plans for another rover on Mars, which will build off the successful legacy and design of its Curiosity Rover. Dubbed the Mars 2020 Rover, the vehicle will be about the size of a car and, because of its size and weight, would require a sky-crane delivery at Mars similar to how Curiosity was deployed. While the specific science objectives of this mission have yet to be determined, mission planners have stated that the rover should look for past signs of life, collect samples for a possible future return to Earth, and demonstrate technologies for future human missions to Mars. Among the proposals for how the the Mars 2020 rover could pave the way for future human exploration at Mars is through a demonstration of in-situ resource utilization technologies that enable propellant and consumable oxygen production from the Martian atmosphere. Such technology would be crucial for long-term habitation on Mars as well as for powering a lift-off from the planet. To carry out its scientific objectives, the rover will carry 7 science instruments, a number of which have already been proposed and selected. Mars 2020 is scheduled for launch in 2020 and will arrive at Mars in 2021.

Exploring the Asteroids

The asteroid 433 Eros, as imaged by NASA's NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft. Source: NASA

The asteroid 433 Eros, as imaged by NASA’s NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft. Source: NASA

Asteroids, small bodies of rock and ice in orbit around our Sun, are time-capsules to the earliest eras of our Solar System; astronomers believe that most asteroids in the “asteroid belt” separating Mars and the inner Solar System from Jupiter and the outer Solar System are the ancient remnants of an unformed world. As such, by studying the characteristics and compositions of these tiny worlds, we may come closer to understanding the processes which led to the formation of our star, the planets, and perhaps even life on Earth. With the scientific and material value of the asteroids becoming ever more apparent over the past two decades, there has been a marked increase in the number of missions sent to visit and study them. Looking ahead at the next few years, this trend of exploration shows no sign of slowing.

NASA has made past visits to a number of asteroids. The Galileo spacecraft, on its way to Jupiter, and the Cassini spacecraft, on its way to Saturn, conducted asteroid flybys as they passed into the outer Solar System, returning multiple pictures and other observations. NASA’s first dedicated mission to an asteroid, NEAR Shoemaker, was launched in 1996 and also flew past a number of asteroids before being placed in orbit around the asteroid 433 Eros. NEAR Shoemaker concluded its mission with a soft-landing upon 433 Ero’s surface, the first asteroid landing in history. Now, NASA has plans to conduct its first sample return mission to an asteroid.

An artist's rendition of OSIRIS-REx collecting samples from asteroid 101955 Bennu. Source: NASA

An artist’s rendition of OSIRIS-REx collecting samples from asteroid 101955 Bennu. Source: NASA

The spacecraft carrying out the mission, OSIRIS-REx, is scheduled to launch in 2016. It will visit asteroid 101955 Bennu, which was chosen because of its high quantities of carbonaceous material – key in the formation of organic molecules necessary for life. After a flight of two years, the spacecraft will gradually approach the asteroid until a robotic arm scoops up surface samples. Numerous scientific studies of the asteroid will also take place during this time. Then, up to 4 pounds of samples will be returned to Earth, finally landing sometime in 2013.  The OSIRIS-REx mission has an added purpose: to determine whether 101955 Bennu poses a risk to Earth. The asteroid’s orbit brings it close to Earth every six years, and there stands a small chance it may hit our planet sometime in the next two centuries. OSIRIS-REx will study the characteristics of 101955 Bennu’s orbit, as well as non-gravitational effects upon that orbit, in order to help scientist’s determine the asteroid’s collision probability.

Japan also has plans to carry out a sample return mission, its second, in the next couple of years. Its first mission, Hayabusa, landed on asteroid 25143 Itokawa in 2005, tiny samples of which were successful returned to Earth in 2010.  Hayabusa became the first-ever preplanned landing upon the surface of an asteroid (NASA’s NEAR Shoemaker’s landing was not preplanned) and greatly advanced Japan’s capabilities in the fields of ion engines, deep space communications, and interplanetary navigation. However, control issues on the return flight nearly caused a termination of the mission. With Hayabusa 2, launched in late 2014 and scheduled to arrive at its target asteroid in July 2018, Japanese scientists hope to address weak points from the past mission while carrying on Japan’s legacy of asteroid exploration.

A rendering of Japan's Hayabusa 2 spacecraft collecting samples from an asteroid. Source: JAXA

A rendering of Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft collecting samples from an asteroid. Source: JAXA

Hayabusa 2 will be of the same design as its predecessor, although it features upgraded guidance and navigation technology as well as improved antennas and control systems. It will also carry an impactor spacecraft designed to create an artificial crater upon the asteroid it visits. This will allow for the collection of fresh samples less affected by the space environment or heat. The target asteroid, 1993 JU3, is similar to 101955 Bennu in that it is a primitive C-type asteroid, so the samples Hayabusa 2 returns should provide great insights into the very early Solar System. The samples are slated for a return to Earth sometime in December 2020.

The Outer Solar System

Once past the inner planets and the asteroid belt, the Solar System transforms into a very different realm: one of empty space, swooping comets, massive gassy planets, and distant icy dwarf worlds. Considering the distances and difficulties involved in reaching the depths of our Solar System, it is no small wonder that there haven’t been too many missions sent to explore it. Indeed, in the half century of space exploration, Jupiter and Saturn have only been explored from orbit once, Uranus and Neptune have only been visited a single time, and Pluto has only just now been seen up-close. As such, the mysteries of the gas planets and the Outer Solar System are still plenty, leaving much to be learned.

The gassy worlds of the Outer Solar System, as captured by NASA spacecraft. Source: NASA

The gassy worlds of the Outer Solar System, as captured by NASA spacecraft. Source: NASA

Of course, again considering the planning and expertise needed to successfully conduct a mission deep into our Solar System, there are today very few missions scheduled to explore there. Those that are scheduled are either many years away or have already been launched into flight. Among the missions still years away are the European Space Agency’s JUICE (Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer), which is set to arrive at Jupiter in 2030 and will focus on studying three of Jupiter’s major moons – Ganymede, Callisto, and Europa.  All three are believed to harbor bodies of liquid water beneath their surfaces and are currently thought to host potentially habitable environments; a mission to explore and classify their interiors will do much toward advancing our understanding of these fascinating “frozen oceans.” A separate NASA mission, planned for launch sometime in the 2020s, will explore Europa in greater depth. The mission will send a highly capable, radiation-tolerant spacecraft into a long, looping orbit around Jupiter in order to perform repeated close flybys of Europa. This “Europa Clipper” mission, as it is now being referred to, is today still in the early planning stages; nonetheless, once underway, it will surely provide some deeply desired answers about one of our Solar System’s most fascinating moons.

Juno at Jupiter

While JUICE and the Europa Clipper mission are still in the planning and development stages, there is one major mission currently en-route to the Outer Solar System: NASA’s Juno spacecraft. Juno, which launched in 2011 and is expected to arrive at Jupiter in July 2016, is designed to study Jupiter’s composition, gravity field, magnetic field, and polar magnetosphere. Doing so will help provide clues as to how our Solar System’s largest planet formed, and may answer lingering questions such as whether Jupiter has a rocky core, how much water is present within its deep atmosphere, how its mass distributed, and how its intense winds, which can reach speeds of up to 380 miles per hour, are produced. Indeed, Juno may very well provide us the greatest amount of insights and information about the nature of gas giants, their evolution, and their role in our Solar System’s dynamics that any mission to the Outer Solar System has yet accomplished.

An artist's rendition of NASA's Juno spacecraft at Jupiter. Source: NASA

An artist’s rendition of NASA’s Juno spacecraft at Jupiter. Source: NASA

After its five-year, 1.7 billion mile cruise to Jupiter, which took Juno near the Earth in 2013 for a gravity-assist flyby, the spacecraft will be captured into an orbit across Jupiter’s poles. This type of orbit will help the spacecraft avoid any long-term contact with Jupiter’s intense radiation belts, which can cause critical damage to the spacecraft’s sensitive electronics and instruments. Indeed, 1-centemeter-thick titanium walls were built around Juno’s electronics in order to help protect and shield them from the planetary radiation. After completing 33 orbits around Jupiter, the spacecraft’s mission is set to conclude in October 2017. Juno will then be de-orbited and will burn up in Jupiter’s outer atmosphere, so as to avoid any possible collisions and contamination of one of the planet’s many moons.

While Juno is an important science mission in its own right, it is also a significant technological demonstration. The spacecraft will be the first ever  to reach the planets of the Outer Solar System using solar panels instead of a nuclear generator, which have been used on all past deep-space probes. A global shortage of Pu-238, the isotope used to power such a generator, as well as major advances in both solar-cell technology and efficiency over the past several decades has now made it economically preferable to use solar panels to provide power at Jupiter’s distance from the Sun. Each of Juno’s three solar arrays is 8.9 feet by 29 feet long, by far the biggest on any NASA deep-space probe. Still, once in orbit, the panels will only be able to muster about 400 watts of electricity… enough to power a handful of light-bulbs; as such, the spacecraft’s instruments and on-board computer were designed to be incredibly energy-efficient. By successfully demonstrating the applicability of solar power use in deep-space, Juno may bring about a shifting of space probe design. At a time when there are supply, financial, and environmental concerns about spacecraft-borne nuclear generators, this may be a dramatic shifting indeed.

New Horizons Past Pluto

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft made history in July 2015 when, after a 9 year flight, it zoomed past Pluto, becoming the first spacecraft to ever encounter that cold, distant world. Over the coming months, the spacecraft will be beaming back to Earth the bulk of data it collected during the flyby; the information already returned, however, shows Pluto and its moon Charon to be geologically-active, diverse, and unexpectedly fascinating worlds. Surely, major discoveries and insights will be gained in the coming years using New Horizon’s observations of Pluto.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, which encountered Pluto in 2015 and is expected to flyby a Kuiper Belt world in the coming years. Source: NASA

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which encountered Pluto in 2015 and is expected to flyby a Kuiper Belt world in the coming years. Source: NASA

New Horizon’s stunning mission of exploration is not yet over; indeed, it has perhaps only just begun. Scientists and mission planners now want the craft, which is careening into the far reaches of our Solar System, to explore what is known as the Kuiper Belt.  The Kuiper Belt is a vast region of small, icy worlds, somewhat similar to the asteroid belt, which orbit the Sun at a great distance past the planets. Some astronomers argue that Pluto is, rather than a planet, one of the inner-most and largest worlds of the Kuiper Belt; indeed, its status as a part of the Kuiper Belt was a cause behind its reclassification as a “dwarf world” instead of a planet. Nonetheless, exploring the  worlds of the Kuiper Belt will be of both major historic and scientific importance: no spacecraft has ever explored the region in-depth before, and, as it is likely that the Kuiper Belt objects are extremely primitive remnants from the early phases of the Solar System, such exploration may do much to reveal more about the early evolution of our Solar System.

Pre-mission planning hoped that New Horizons would be able to encounter at least one and perhaps two additional Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) after its encounter with Pluto. Yet a number of constraints exist on an extended mission: any KBO visited would have to fall within 1 degree of New Horizons’ post-Pluto trajectory and within an orbital boundary of 55 AU. This is because of the minimal amount of fuel left in the spacecraft that could be dedicated to more maneuvers as well as the probe’s ever-weakening communications and power abilities. By late 2014, the Hubble Space Telescope revealed three potential targets for New Horizons which all fell within the required parameters for a visit. However, the probability that New Horizons may be able to reach those objects, identified as PT1, PT2, and PT3, varies; there is a 100% chance the craft could reach PT1, a 7% chance it could reach PT2, and a 97% chance it could reach PT3.

An artist's rendition of a Kupier Belt Object, perhaps similar to the one NASA's New Horizons spacecraft may visit in the coming years. Source: NASA

An artist’s rendition of a Kupier Belt Object, perhaps similar to the one NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft may visit in the coming years. Source: NASA

Should PT1 be chosen for a flyby, New Horizons will reach it in January 2019. According to mission planners, though, PT3 may be more preferable as a target since it is brighter and  probably larger than PT1 and therefore more attractive for scientific observation. A final decision on which object New Horizons will visit after Pluto is expected to be made in August 2015. Either way, it now appears likely that New Horizons will indeed have an extended mission to a KBO.

After New Horizon’s eventual flyby of a KBO, the spacecraft will join NASA’s Voyager spacecraft in the exploration of the outer most regions of the Solar System by mapping the heliosphere and solar winds. It is currently estimated that the spacecraft will end its mission in 2026, the point at which the plutonium in its nuclear generator will decay. However, if New Horizons is still functioning when it reaches the outer heliosphere, it is expected that the spacecraft will encounter the edge of our Solar System in 2047 and then join the Voyager and Pioneer spacecraft in interstellar space.


The "Hubble Deep Field" image, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, reveals hundreds of thousands of galaxies in deep space. The image was taken from a small, single point of the sky. Source: NASA

The “Hubble Deep Field” image, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, reveals hundreds of thousands of galaxies in deep space. The image was taken from a small, single point of the sky. Source: NASA

There is, obviously, far, far more to the universe than our own Solar System. While we at present are limited to exploring only the Solar System with our robotic and human spacecraft, we have nonetheless been able to explore far beyond it using powerful telescopes and radio instruments. Indeed, with the coming of sophisticated space- and Earth-bound telescopes, there has been an exploration revolution of sorts in the past few decades. Among them, the Hubble Space Telescope has provided us with unprecedented images of the universe from within our own galaxy to the farthest reaches of intergalactic space. The Spitzer Space Telescope, in an orbit around the Sun that leaves it trailing the Earth, revealed through infrared imaging an unseen universe of gas and dust. Meanwhile, the Chandra X-ray Observatory has investigated x-ray sources with a power 100 times that of past X-ray telescopes, while the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory provided detection for both gamma rays and x-rays. Recently, the Kepler Space Telescope has searched nearby stars for orbiting planets, revealing that our Solar System is by no means unique in having planets small, large, rocky and gassy. Together, these space telescopes, along with a myriad of other telescopes and instruments on the Earth, have given us great insights into the complex nature and structure of the universe at-large. This observation revolution shows no signs of stopping soon, however; indeed, over the next few years, a number of major missions are planned which will surely let us investigate further into the universe with even more power than before.

A New Search for E.T.

The question of whether life, especially intelligent life, exists beyond the Earth is one of the most significant and profound facing humanity today. It is easy to imagine that the discovery of alien intelligence would dramatically shift our perceptions of ourselves and our place and role in the universe. While many of the exploration missions in our Solar System search for evidence of life past or present, there also remains an entire universe to explore in order to find it. For almost half a century, a dedicated search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has probed the sky with massive telescopes and radio dishes, hoping to pick up some signal or sign that would indicate the presence of an extraterrestrial civilization. Yet, for the past half century, scientists have been met with deafening silence; in turn, many of SETI’s key funders have backed away from supporting the project over the past few years.

The Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia; one of three telescopes being used in the new Breakthrough Listen initiative to find alien intelligence. Source: Nature.com

The Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia; one of three telescopes being used in the new Breakthrough Listen initiative to find alien intelligence. Source: Nature.com

Enter Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, who teamed up with physicist Steven Hawking to announce in 2015 an unprecedented $100 million dollar decade-long project to provide the most comprehensive search for alien communication in history. The initiative, called Breakthrough Listen, will use telescopes in Virginia, Australia, and California to scan around one million stars in the Milky Way galaxy and hundreds of nearby galaxies listening for sophisticated radio signals. The search will be conducted by a team that includes scientists from the past long-running SETI programs; other advisers will include longtime SETI astronomers and prominent members of the SETI community. With such an expansion of capabilities, the SETI community is planning to potentially produce as much data in a day as earlier SETI projects collected in a year. Significantly, the data produced will be made publicly available and the Breakthrough Listen team will produce software to help private individuals sift through the flood of data; making the search open-source will greatly expand the extent and rate at which the data can be analyzed.

Although, if the past half-century has demonstrated anything, the chances of Breakthrough Listen finding evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence is incredibly slim, it nonetheless represents the most impressive and large-scale effort  to do so in history. Not only that, the initiative will likely have a positive impact on the wider astronomy community; the investment has saved some relatively old telescopes from the threat of closure and the sky survey might astronomers discover more pulsars and other objects of astronomical interest.

TESS Uncovers Extrasolar Planets

A rendering of the TESS space telescope, set for launch in 2017, Source: NASA

A rendering of the TESS space telescope, set for launch in 2017, Source: NASA

Our galaxy is full of stars and those stars, as we’re increasingly becoming aware, are full of planets of all sizes and forms. With each new discovery of an extrasolar planet, we come closer to finding worlds which may resemble our own, and which very well may be habitable for life.  NASA now has plans to launch a space telescope in 2017 which will greatly expand our capacity for discovering those potentially habitable worlds. Known as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, this telescope will survey the brightest stars near Earth for a period of two years hoping to finding planets in orbit around them. While the Kepler Space Telescope, which launched in 2009, has already identified many small and potentially rocky worlds around other stars, it has only been searching around 100,00 stars…. a relatively small slice of the sky. TESS, however, will be able to cover about 400 times as much area.

TESS will operate by looking for changes in observed light from the stars it is targeting; this change in light is indicative of a planet passing in front of it. This method of discovery, known as the “transit method,” has been widely used in the past by ground-based telescopes; however, these past surveys have mostly found large gas planets similar to Jupiter because of the limited sensitivity of their instruments. TESS, however,  will be capable of identifying small planets similar in size to the Earth, or perhaps even smaller. Once it has identified those planets, TESS’s instruments will allow it to study their obits, masses, densities, and the chemical composition of their atmospheres; such information will go a long way toward characterizing the nature of those planets and may indeed reveal whether they are suitable for habitation. TESS’s sky survey will also provide targets for further observation by the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, along with other space- and ground-based telescopes.

The James Webb Space Telescope

A rendering of the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA's successor to the Hubble and Spitzer telescopes. The gray foil under the telescope is the spacecraft's massive sun-shield. Source: NASA

A rendering of the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s successor to the Hubble and Spitzer telescopes. The gray foil under the telescope is the spacecraft’s massive sun-shield. Source: NASA

Building off the successes of its past space telescopes, NASA hopes to launch a new space telescope which has the potential to revolutionize the fields of astronomy and cosmology and which will serve as a successor to the Hubble and Spitzer telescopes. The James Webb Space Telescope, named after the NASA administrator pivotal to the success of the Apollo program, will offer unprecedented resolution and sensitivity from the visible to the mid-infrared spectrum. With these capabilities, it will be able to observe some of the most distant objects in the universe, such as the very first stars and the formation of the very first galaxies. Astronomers also hope to use the James Webb Telescope to understand the formation of stars and planets through the imaging of molecular clouds and star-forming clusters, studying debris disks around stars, taking direct images of extrasolar planets, and conducting spectroscopic examination of extrasolar planets. The telescope is also one of space history’s most significant examples of international collaboration;  17 countries have contributed to the telescope, with NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency at the lead.

The James Webb Space Telescope promises to offer incredible images of places and times in the universe that we’ve never before observed. Of tremendous excitement is that, through the spectroscopic examination of extrasolar planets, which determines the composition of those planets atmospheres, we may very well be able to determine whether there are signs of life on those planets; certain atmospheric compositions, after all, can only be produced from the presence of life.

A diagram demonstrating the L2 point at which the James Webb Space Telescope will operate. Source: NASA

A diagram demonstrating the L2 point at which the James Webb Space Telescope will operate. Source: NASA

The telescope will be launched in 2018 on a mission that is expected to run for five years, although mission planners hope that the telescope will operate for at least 10 years. It will be placed near the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange point, about 930,000 miles beyond the Earth. This is a point at which objects can orbit the Sun at a synchronized rate as the Earth, allowing the telescope to remain at a roughly constant distance. In order to maintain the telescope’s incredibly sensitive instruments, the spacecraft needs to be super-cooled; to accomplish this, the telescope has a massive sun-shield built-in that will block heat and light from the Sun and the Earth. This should keep the telescope at temperatures below -370 degrees Fahrenheit.  While keeping the telescope at the L2 point is necessary for optimal functioning, it does carry risks; no astronauts will be able to reach it in order to conduct repairs should they be necessary. Considering that the Hubble Space Telescope only worked after a crucial in-orbit repair by Space Shuttle astronauts, this has caused significant concern among some mission planners.

Should the telescope function as intended and return the terrific science that is hoped of it, it will be a solid conclusion to an otherwise troubled program. The James Webb program began in 1996 and has had a history of major cost overruns and delays. Initial estimates placed the telescope’s launch in 2011, and the U.S. Congress very nearly cut funding for the telescope in 2011. As of today, the telescope is on schedule for its 2018 launch, although the program’s status remains controversial while the telescope is being constructed. Nonetheless, with the program still anticipating eventual launch, the James Webb Space Telescope looks poised to be the premier observatory for the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide and greatly advancing our understanding of the early and deep universe like never before.

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