Our unquenchable thirst for space exploration and pushing the boundaries of science will see us going deeper into our Solar System and beyond for as long as humanity exists.
Here are some of the ambitious future space missions that will help us understand the very fabric of the Universe, deliver people and resources to and from Earth, and inspire the next generation of space scientists:
James Webb Space Telescope: Worth the Wait (YouTube/James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)
Operator: NASA, ESA & CSA
Launch: March 2021
Mission objectives: The telescope’s four infrared instruments will search for the first galaxies formed after the Big Bang, determine how galaxies evolved, observe the formation of stars from the first stages, measure the physical and chemical properties of planetary systems, including our own Solar System, and investigate the potential for life in those systems.
What to expect: Like the Hubble Space Telescope before it, we can expect to see some magnificent images from the JWST, but at nearly seven times larger we’ll be able to see deeper into our Universe and closer at the celestial bodies in our own Solar System.
Unlike Hubble, which measures visible, near-ultraviolet and near-infrared light, JWST focuses on the mid- to long-infrared spectrum, which means it will be better able to penetrate dust and clouds to study dimmer, cooler objects.
Operating at around -230°C means the telescope’s own infrared emissions won’t affect the signal received from the target, and by orbiting around the Lagrange point 2 it will travel around the Sun at the same speed as Earth, providing a stable environment for observations.
- Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway: the next space station will orbit the Moon
- Chang’e 4: how China’s lander talks to us from the far side of the Moon
Mission objectives: Following the successful test of the LISA Pathfinder mission, LISA aims to detect and measure gravitational waves produced by compact binary systems and mergers of supermassive black holes.
What to expect: Gravitational waves are the ripples in spacetime that Albert Einstein predicted in his theory of general relativity.
It took nearly 100 years for them to be confirmed by the LIGO detector here on Earth, but the LISA mission will use three satellites precisely measured around 2.5 million km apart that will be able to detect much fainter gravitational waves, with signals smaller than 20 picometres (tinier than an atom) over a million kilometres.
From this we will be able to determine more about the nature and location of black holes, as well rigorously testing Einstein’s theories.
Breakthrough Starshot Animation (Full) (YouTube/Breakthrough)
Operator: Breakthrough Initiatives
Launch: Around 2036
Mission objectives: To send spacecraft to Alpha Centauri, our neighbouring star system, in a journey lasting only 20 years.
What to expect: Announced in 2016, the mission sounds like the stuff of pure sci-fi.
Breakthrough Initiatives are a group including the likes of the late Stephen Hawking and Mark Zuckerberg, and will launch 1,000 tiny light sail spacecraft called StarChips on a 4.37 light year-journey to Alpha Centauri at 15-20 per cent of the speed of light using lasers on Earth.
The mission hopes to test the possibility of ultra-fast space travel and will flyby Proxima Centauri b, an exoplanet in the habitable zone of the star system.
Operator: ESA & Roscosmos
Mission objectives: To discover if life ever existed on Mars
What to expect: The first stage of the mission, the Trace Gas Orbiter has already arrived in orbit around the Red Planet and is on the hunt for methane and other gases, which suggest the presence of organic compounds, in the atmosphere.
Stage 2 is a rover that will land in 2020 and drill two metres under the Martian surface, before analysing samples in an on-board lab in search for organic compounds.
It is hoped that at this depth any well-preserved organic matter will be safe from the harsh radiation at the planet’s surface due to the thin atmosphere.
Prospecting for Asteroid Resources – Deep Space Industries (YouTube/DeepSpaceIndustries)
Operator: Deep Space Industries (DSi)
Launch: Sometime in the 2020s
Mission objectives: To commercially mine asteroids
What to expect: Although still far from being confirmed, DSi plans to send Prospector 1 to a nearby asteroid and assess its suitability for mining precious materials. It will then land on the asteroid, creating humanity’s first commercial base on another celestial body.
This is all in preparation for a much grander mission, which is to build a new type of spacecraft that will mine the asteroid on an industrial scale, and then bring the harvest back into Earth’s orbit.
The company hopes that by being a commercial rather than government project, they are able to reduce the total time from start to completion of the mission.
JUICE – Exploring Jupiter’s icy Moons (YouTube/Airbus Defence and Space)
Mission objectives: To collect detailed observations of Jupiter and three of its largest moons, Ganymede, Callisto and Europa.
What to expect: When the explorer arrives in the Jovian system in 2030, its main focus is to understand the conditions that might have led to habitable environments on Jupiter’s satellites, particularly on Ganymede.
JUICE will also provide the first subsurface sounding of Enceledus, which measures the minimal thickness of the most recently active regions.
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Sample Return Mission (YouTube/NASA Goddard)
Launched: 8 September 2016
Expected return: September 2023
Mission objectives: To return a sample of rock to Earth from the asteroid Bennu.
What to expect: The ORISIS-REx mission arrived at Bennu in December 2018, and is currently spending a year analysing the asteroid for suitable sample sites. Once found, a robotic arm will spend only five seconds collecting samples before it begins its two and a half year journey back to Earth.
Scientists hope that the mission will be able to help us understand the early Solar System and the hazards and resources of near-Earth objects. They will also study the Yarkovsky effect, where the asteroid absorbs sunlight and changes its direction as it loses this energy through heat, potentially putting it on collision course with Earth.
Discovering the unknown: the world’s largest radio telescope (YouTube/Square Kilometre Array)
Operator: A global project with 12 member countries, headquartered in Jodrell Bank, UK
Mission objectives: To create the world’s most sensitive radio telescope, addressing a wide range of cosmic questions.
What to expect: The enormous array of dishes across the deserts of South Africa and Australia will be 50 times more sensitive than the Hubble Space Telescope, which will help test the theory of relativity by Albert Einstein, measure the effect hypothetically caused by dark energy, and discover more about the large-scale structure of the cosmos.
But this is only the first phase, which is only 10 per cent of the total size. Phase 2 will be sensitive enough for us to be able to see as far back as 300,000 years after the Big Bang and perhaps pick up faint radio signals from any potential extra-terrestrial civilisation.
The modern Space Race
Opening Space (YouTube/Blue Origin)
Operator: Blue Origin, SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, among others
Mission objectives: To provide reusable space vehicles able to reliably transport people and resources to and from space.
What to expect: The modern Space Race is already going at warp speed at the moment, and barely a month goes by without SpaceX announcing the successful landing of a reusable rocket or Virgin Galactic creeping ever closer to delivering tourists into space.
The big issue is cost, as currently only eight tourists have visited space, costing between $20-40m a time, but this could be massively reduced with reusable vehicles and more efficient transport, with Virgin Galactic offering tickets for a comparatively paltry $250k.
Once this reusable technology has been perfected, it opens the way to launching manned crews to the Moon or Mars, and beyond.
Launched: 12 August 2018
Closest approach to the Sun: 2025
Mission objectives: To provide new data on the Sun to more accurately measure and forecast the solar wind and the effect space-weather will have for life on Earth.
What to expect: The Parker Solar Probe (formerly Solar Probe Plus) is built to with withstand the intense 1,377°C heat from the Sun as it “touches” it from within six million kilometres, seven times closer than any spacecraft before it.
Once there, it will help us answer why the Sun’s corona is hotter than the surface of the Sun and why we have solar wind. It will also travel at 200km/s, making it the fastest man-made object ever made.