During the last decade spacecraft has visited asteroids, landed on comets and flown past Pluto and other Kuiper Belt Objects. Science has also developed at an accelerated pace. Confirmed exoplanet detections has increased by a factor of eight thanks to Kepler, 1.7 billion stars had their positions measured with significant accuracy with GAIA and history was made with the first detection of gravitational waves using LIGO.
The 2020’s look set to bring more exoplanet detections, precise stellar position measurements and gravitational wave detections, but also a new host of space missions. From near Earth to the beginning of the universe, over thirteen NASA and ESA missions plan to launch in the 2020’s. What can we expect?
Era of the Infrared: Probing the Cosmos:
Originally planned to launch in 2007, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has seen a major redesign and many delays. However, the current planned launch date is March 2021. JWST is a large infrared telescope with a 6.5 metre primary mirror. To launch such a large telescope into space requires difficult manoeuvring and it is worth looking at how the deployment will happen:
JWST will be located at a stable orbital point, known as L2, between the Sun and Earth, far enough away that we will not be able to send astronauts out to fix it. If all goes correctly JWST will be able to take images of the very first stars and galaxies as well as exoplanet atmospheres, leading to a greater understanding of the evolution of galaxies and planetary systems.
JWST is not the only thing extragalactic astronomers have to be excited about though. Euclid is a European Space Agency (ESA) mission that plans to study distant galaxies. Weak gravitational lensing and baryonic acoustic oscillation measurements will be used to probe the history of the universe’s expansion and the distribution of dark matter. Euclid has a planned launch date of June 2022.
The Spectro Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization and Ices Explorer (SPHEREx) is a NASA mission that will use near infrared light to survey over 300 million galaxies for water and organic molecules in regions where new stars and planets are forming. The goal is to discover whether the ingredients for life are common in galaxies like the Milky Way. SPHEREx is planned to launch on New Year’s Eve, 2023 and has an estimated mission duration of two years.
The Wide Field InfraRed Survey Telescope (WFIRST) is a NASA mission with a planned launch date in 2025. Over the course of its planned 5 year mission, the instrument will observe more than one billion galaxies and will survey the inner Milky Way for exoplanets with microlensing and direct imaging. To take a direct image of an exoplanet, WFIRST will be outfitted with a coronagraph that will block the host star’s light.
The Solar System: Searching for Life and Other Odd Things:
Late July 2020, NASA is sending another rover to Mars! The so far unnamed rover has been referred to as the “Mars 2020 Rover,” but not for long. The rover’s name will be decided in a public poll in January. When it lands on Mars in February 2021, the rover will explore a part of Mars’ surface that may have once been favourable for microbial life. Equipped with a drill, the rover will collect approximately 30 samples of Martian soil and rock, depositing them on the surface for a possible future collection and return mission. Meanwhile, the rover will analyze the chemical and physical makeup of Martian rocks, helping it decide where to go next.
ESA also plans on going to Mars this summer with its ExoMars missions. The first, an orbiter, launched and arrived in 2016. The second mission will deliver a European rover and a Russian surface platform. The ExoMars rover will, like Mars 2020, be searching for traces of past microbial life and is equipped with a drill. The rover will use the 2 metre, drill to collect samples and analyze their chemical and mineralogical makeup.
Traveling a bit further out will be NASA’s Europa Clipper mission. With a TBD launch date in the 2020’s, this mission will fly out to Jupiter’s moon Europa. Europa is known for its icy surface that may be harbouring a subsurface ocean of liquid water. The Clipper mission will perform repeated flybys of the moon. Measurements of ice thickness (using radar), magnetic fields and gravity will provide evidence and details of whatever liquid water may be hiding under Europa’s surface.
The Psyche mission will travel to the asteroid belt to visit a world unlike any other we have visited so far. Unlike other asteroids, Psyche is made of metal. Such large chunks of metal are usually found at the centre of planets, which led astronomers to wonder whether Psyche was the core of a failed planet. If this is the case, Psyche offers the opportunity to investigate the core of planets much like Earth’s, although Earth’s core is inaccessible. This mission is led by Arizona State University, with mission management, operation and navigation provided by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The mission will launch in 2022 and arrive at Psyche in 2026.
To the Moon Again:
The Lunar Flashlight is a small CubeSat, one of many. But it will be the first to reach our Moon and will use lasers to search for water ice. This mission is remarkable because it offers the potential for a low, cost way to search for water on the Moon. If humans are ever going to build a base on the Moon, it will be key to know where water can be obtained, and this is only the first step. It will launch in late 2020 or early 2021 with Artemis 1, the first flight of NASA’s Artemis Program. To understand why and how this is happening.
Earth: Pollution, Volcanoes, and Weather!
Many upcoming NASA missions will come even closer to home. The Multi-Angle Imager for Aerosols (MAIA) will take measurements of the size and composition of particulate matter in the atmosphere. By combining this information with health records, scientists hope to gain a better understanding of the connection between air quality and health problems. MAIA will launch in 2022 and stay in an orbit around Earth.
The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and NASA are teaming up to bring the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) to Earth orbit in 2022. This mission will be able to image the Earth in unprecedented detail and take measurements of complex processes such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes. Understanding these processes and how they are changing with the climate is key for preparing for natural disasters and future hazards.
SWOT (Surface Water and Ocean Topography) is here. In 2021, SWOT will begin orbiting the Earth to take measurements of Earth’s oceans, lakes, rivers, and reservoirs every 21 days. This will improve our understanding of weather and climate models as well as ocean circulation. This mission is a partnership between NASA and Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (France) with contributions from the Canadian Space Agency and United Kingdom Space Agency.
The next decade certainly has a lot to offer, and this is just what we know about now. Missions get added, delayed and canceled all the time. Be sure to check NASA’s websites for updates on your favorite missions.
Canadian Space Agency (CSA)
Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (France)
European Space Agency (ESA)
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
United Kingdom Space Agency (UKSA)