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Missions of the Future
Missions of the Future

Orion is proud to partner with BBC Sky at Night Magazine, the UK's biggest selling astronomy periodical, to bring you this article as part of an ongoing series to provide valuable content to our customers. Check back each month for exciting articles from renowned amateur astronomers, practical observing tutorials, and much more!

Missions of the Future

With a fleet of probes being readied for flight over the next few years, Elizabeth Pearson looks at the destinations these missions will be heading to throughout our Solar System, as well as what they hope to uncover

Space probe and Jupiter

Image from Pixabay courtesy of Andrew-Art, Space probe and Jupiter


Only two spacecraft have ever been sent to the innermost planet of our Solar System, but that number is set to double. Two probes will fly to Mercury together as part of the BepiColombo mission, due for launch in 2018: ESA's Mercury Planet Orbiter and JAXA's Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter. These two spacecraft will work together to provide a complete study of the planet's geology, composition, structure and interior when it arrives at the planet in 2024. The aim is to understand Mercury's place in our Solar System's creation and history. One of the greatest mysteries the two the probes will address is that of planet's magnetic field, first detected by Mariner 10 in 1974.

Mercury should be too small to host a molten core, thought to drive the magnetic fields of other planets; uncovering the interior of this world will help clarify which planets are capable of hosting a magnetosphere, both in this planetary system and beyond.

The Moon

Since the early days of the Space Race, reaching the Moon has been a symbol of a country's prowess as a spacefaring nation. But with NASA's eyes on Mars and Russia's lunar exploration programme suspended until 2025, it's time for new players in the space game to join the ranks of lunar explorers.

Both China and India have already conducted lunar missions and both are planning on building on their successes. Chang'e 5 will continue the China National Space Administration's (CNSA's) robotic exploration of the Moon in 2017, and return up to 2kg of material to the Earth — the first fresh lunar samples since 1976.

Set to launch in 2019, another Chinese mission, Chang'e 4, was initially intended as a back up to Chang'e 3. Following that mission's success it was reconfigured to land on the far side of the Moon, an area that has never been visited. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is also hoping to cement its spacefaring credentials with the Chandrayaan-2 mission in 2018. The mission will land a rover on the lunar surface — the nation's first attempt touch down on another world.

But the days of space agencies holding sole claim to the Moon could be about to change, as a fleet of private companies are in the final leg of their own race to the lunar surface. The Google Lunar X Prize challenged private groups to land a rover on the Moon by the end of 2017. Three companies have arranged launch contracts so far. After many years of silence, the lunar surface is about to get a lot busier.


The Red Planet has had its fair share of visitors in recent years, a trend that will continue for the next decade as several new missions head for Mars.

NASA will continue its long legacy of Martian exploration with the InSight (Interior Exploration using the Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport)mission due for launch in 2018. It is a stationary lander that will measure the planet's seismological and thermal activity to work out what's going on under Mars's crust.

In 2020, not one but two new rovers will launch for the Red Planet — NASA's Mars 2020 rover and the second phase of ESA's ExoMars mission, which began in 2016 with the Trace Gas Orbiter. Both of these missions will look for signs of life, past and present, and try to determine if Mars was ever habitable.

But the time of robotic dominion over Mars could soon be at an end, as several key players are beginning to make real moves towards landing humans on the Martian surface. Both Chinese and US officials have stated a desire to start crewed missions to Mars over the next few decades. However, it might not be a government agency to put the first person on Mars, but a commercial one. SpaceX has always been vocal about its intention not only to launch a manned Mars mission, but also to set up a permanent base there. As a first step the company plan to fly and land a modified version of the Dragon module, currently used to send supplies to the International Space Station. This robotic mission, slated for 2018, could be a first step towards the century long journey of making humankind a multi-planet species.


The rubble of our Solar System's formation survives all around in the form of asteroids. Though mostly found in the asteroid belt, there are hundreds of these space rocks that regularly cross Earth's orbit, making them a tempting target for study.

Two missions to visit these cosmic wanderers are already underway, and both hope to return samples to Earth. JAXA's Hayabusa-2 spacecraft launched in 2014, bound for asteroid 162173 Ryugu. Once the probe arrives in 2018 it will obtain three samples, one of which will be excavated using an explosive charge, returning them in 2020. Its launch was followed by NASA's OSIRIS-REX, which set off for asteroid 101955 Bennu in 2016. Once there it will use gas jets to blast dust and rock off the surface before returning them home in 2023.

But robotic missions can only do so much, and NASA is currently planning an audacious mission to send humans to one of our rocky neighbours. The Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) will send a robotic probe to a near-Earth asteroid in the 2020s, retrieving a boulder weighing several tons from its surface and transferring it to Earth orbit.

From there, NASA will stage a series of manned missions to the boulder using the Orion crew module, which itself is still in development and hopes to fly in 2021.

This would be the first time such studies have been performed on the primordial bodies in space, rather than being returned to Earth. The mission would also provide a test bed for technologies that could one day take humanity deeper into the Solar System. Asteroids may prove a vital part of such endeavors, as mining them could provide raw materials for building spacecraft in orbit, as well as water. This could can be split into hydrogen and oxygen, and used in rocket fuel.

The Outer Solar System

The Solar System beyond the asteroid belt has remained relatively unexplored since the Voyager probes passed through three decades ago. But the giants of the outer Solar System will soon be giving up their secrets, as several missions to visit this mysterious region are planned. Juno is in the process of mapping out the largest of the gas giants, Jupiter, but it is this planet's companions that will be the next targets.

ESA's first mission to Jupiter, the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) is currently being designed to make detailed observations of not only the planet, but three of the Galilean moons — Ganymede, Callisto and Europa. All of these worlds could potentially host liquid water oceans beneath an icy crust, making them the likeliest places to discover life beyond Earth. Aiming for a 2022 launch date, JUICE will find out not only if such oceans exist, but how they came to be and how likely it is that such moons are habitable.

Meanwhile NASA is planning a mission for the late 2020s that will perform multiple flybys of Europa, to help us understand its geology. Still in the concept phase, there is the potential for a lander, but it would not be capable of tunnelling through the several kilometers of ice to reach the subsurface ocean. Luckily, the Hubble Space Telescope has spotted jets of water shooting hundreds of kilometers above the moon's crust. If the main probe could fly through one of these, it could take a sample that originated deep within the moon.

NASA plans to venture even further into the outer reaches with its following mission — to Uranus. Currently under consultation, the spacecraft would orbit around the planet, which hasn't been visited in over three decades. Back then, Voyager 2 gave us only a handful of images of a seemingly placid world. Though it's unlikely we will see such a mission before the 2030s, it's worth the wait to see what Uranus hides beneath this calm exterior.

Beyond the Solar System

Though much of the focus of future space missions is on the planets around us, there is a much wider Universe waiting to be explored.

Exoplanets are one of the hottest research topics at the moment and there are several new observatories on the way. NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has already been built, ready for launch later in 2017. It will search the whole sky for exoplanets, but its main aim is to track down Earth-sized planets around nearby bright stars. Once found, those similar to our own world would be prime targets for follow up study by the Characterising Exoplanet Satellite (CHEOPS), which ESA is building for a 2018 launch. Looking at already known exoplanets, CHEOPS will be able to determine their precise orbital properties and radii.

The next goal will be to understand the atmosphere that surrounds these worlds. The UK-built Twinkle satellite, which has just finished its design phase and is planned to launch in 2019. Its aim is to capture the 0.01 per cent of starlight that shines through an exoplanet's atmosphere, which can then be untangled to reveal what chemicals compose it. Perhaps the most anticipated tool in the exploration of exoplanets, however, is the James Webb Space Telescope. From 2018 onwards, this amazing infrared telescope could be used to look at these distant planetary atmospheres, and will be able to do much more besides. Touted as the Hubble Space Telescope's successor, the JWST will be able to study everything from the origin of the Solar System to the first light that ever shone in the Universe.

ESA plans to extend its own cosmic vision with the construction of two deep space observatories — Euclid in 2020 and Athena in 2028. These will help to identify the structure and geometry that govern our Universe, and to unlock the answers of how the cosmos we know came to be.

Future missions at a glance

There are dozens of missions set to take flight in the next decade, but where will they be headed?


Chang'e 5
Type: Lunar lander
Goal: Sample return

Type: Satellite
Goal: Exoplanet search

Google Lunar X Prize candidates
Type: Lunar lander and rover
Goal: Dependant on winner


Type: Mercury orbiter
Goal: Geological and magnetospheric survey

Type: Orbiter
Goal: Asteroid sample-return mission

Type: Orbiter
Goal: Asteroid sample-return mission

Type: Satellite
Goal: Exoplanet measurement

Type: Mars lander
Goal: Seismic and geological survey

James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)
Type: Space observatory
Goal: Infrared imaging

Red Dragon
Type: Spacecraft
Goal: Test flight to Mars

Type: Lunar orbiter, lander and rover
Goal: Mineralogical and geological survey


Chang'e 4
Type: Lunar lander and rover
Goal: Mineralogical and geological survey


Mars 2020
Type: Mars rover
Goal: Habitability search

ExoMars 2020
Type: Mars rover
Goal: Habitability search

Type: Space observatory
Goal: Observing the early Universe


Type: Orbiter
Goal: Observe Gallilean satellites at Jupiter

Type: Satellite
Goal: Exoplanet characterisation

Europa Clipper
Type: Orbiter
Goal: Habitability study of Europa

Type: Space observatory
Goal: X-ray imaging

Neptune Orbiter Mission
Type: Orbiter
Goal: Planetary observation

Type: Crewed
Goal: Redirect and survey asteroid

Dr. Elizabeth Pearson is BBC Sky at Night Magazine's news editor. She has a PhD in extragalactic astronomy.

Copyright © Immediate Media. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical without permission from the publisher.

Date Taken: 08/01/2017
Author: Elizabeth Pearson for BBC Sky at Night Magazine
Category: Astronomy

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