Humanity has had a long love affair with the Red Planet. We’ve launched about 20 successful missions to study Mars since the 1960s, including the still operational Opportunity and Curiosity rovers.
It’s also a source of intrigue for scientists searching for clues to where life may have once existed in the solar system.
In May 2018, NASA will launch the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, or InSight, mission.
This project will drop a stationary lander on Martian soil with the goal of understanding what happened at the rocky planet’s very beginning.
“It’s a mission to map out the deep interior of Mars all the way down to the very center of the planet,” said W. Bruce Banerdt, the mission’s principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
It will take detailed geophysical measurements to determine the thickness of the planet’s core, mantle and crust.
“It’s like using a microscope instead of looking at it from across the room,” he said.
While nestled on the ground, the InSight lander will listen for seismic activity and small vibrations — marsquakes.
Using a burrowing device known as a heat flow probe, it will dig about 16 feet into the surface — making the deepest man-made hole on Mars — and take temperature readings.
Another tool will examine the speed of Mars’ rotation and the wobble it makes as it spins along its axis, similar to the wobble in a spinning top.
Joining Curiosity and Opportunity will be the less imaginatively named Mars 2020 Rover. Planned for launch in, you guessed it, 2020, this rover will land on the planet that same year.
Unlike its predecessors, this mission is intended to send samples from the Martian surface back to Earth to help with the search for evidence of ancient life on Mars.
The Mars 2020 Rover is essentially part of a three-step plan to collect bits of Mars and study them on Earth, which has never been done before.
The rover will collect 37 samples in test tubes that are immediately sealed. Once it has collected all of its samples it will find a spot to deposit them.
To retrieve them, the thought is that a second spacecraft will land near that site, collect the samples, put them into a rocket on its back, and launch them into space.
Finally, the hope is that a third craft will sweep across Mars and grab the basketball-sized container with the samples and blast back to Earth.
The European Space Agency and the Russian space agency are also in on the Martian land rush. In their joint venture, ExoMars will land a European rover and a Russian surface platform to Mars.
The Europa Clipper mission will sail past Jupiter’s icy moon Europa on some 40 to 45 flybys sometime in the 2020s.
Scientists believe that Europa has an ocean of salty water beneath its crust, and the NASA mission, will help determine if the moon has the recipe for life: a splash of liquid water, a sprinkle of chemical ingredients, and an energy source that can bake up some biology.
Also eyeing Jupiter’s satellites is the E.S.A.’s JUICE mission, which stands for Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, and is planned for launch in 2022.
In addition to Europa, the space probe will study Ganymede, the largest moon in the solar system, and Callisto, which has more impact craters than any other object in the solar system.
JUICE will use ice-penetrating radar to peek beneath the moons’ surfaces and a laser to measure its geological features.
At the end of its mission JUICE will be put into orbit around Ganymede and become the first spacecraft to orbit a moon other than our own.
Scientists will also explore Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids, which consist of two giant asteroid clusters caught in the gaseous planet’s gravitational field.
NASA’s will investigate six of these rocks in a path that takes it through both asteroid clouds. It will launch in 2021 and study these half dozen rocks from 2027 until 2033, according to NASA.
Although navigating an asteroid belt isn’t nearly as precarious as it appears in movies, it’s still a calculated operation, especially if your goal is to rendezvous with one of the space rocks on its orbit around the solar system.
There are three upcoming asteroid missions to be on the lookout for.
Already on its way, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Hayabusa-2 mission will arrive at asteroid 162173 Ryugu in 2018.
The mission will land a small probe on the surface, as well as three hopping mini-rovers, according to NASA. After the lander drops from the Hayabusa-2 mother ship, it will collect samples.
But the main goal of Hayabusa-2 is to return to Earth with those samples in December 2020, after exploring the asteroid for more than a year.
As the “2” in the name implies, this will be Japan’s second round-trip to an asteroid. The first Hayabusa launched in 2003, reached its target in 2005, and returned in 2010.
NASA’s Osiris-Rex launched on Sept. 8, 2016, and in August 2018 it will approach the asteroid Bennu, a 1,650-foot-wide, carbon-rich rock.
After catching up with the asteroid, which speeds around the sun at about 63,000 miles per hour, Osiris-Rex will survey it for about a year.
Then in 2020, it will perform a touch-and-go maneuver with a robotic arm to collect a sample from its surface.
It will come in contact with the asteroid for only about five seconds, enough time to release a burst of nitrogen gas to rustle up sediments.
It can collect up to about four pounds of samples. Then the spacecraft will leave Bennu in March 2021, arriving at Earth in 2023.
The samples will tell us about the composition of the asteroid as well as help reveal mysteries about the origin of our solar system.
What also makes Bennu interesting is that NASA predicts that it has a 1 in 2,500 chance of hitting Earth toward the end of the 22nd century.
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