Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Future of Space Exploration

Jupiter and Europa

The 15th to 18th centuries were a time of unprecedented exploration of our world. Europeans, with a healthy sense of curiosity, and driven by a desire to conquer new worlds, were the primary instigators. Today, we live in a similar time of exploration as countries and private corporations turn their eyes to our solar system. Led by many organizations from around the world, there is a greater sense of cooperation in this age of discovery. The National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA), European Space Agency (ESA), Russian Federal Space Agency (RFSA), Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA), and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) are all making a mark in space exploration.

NASA is presently developing an Asteroid Redirect Mission in which they will identify, capture, and redirect a near-Earth asteroid. The goal is to capture an asteroid and place it in orbit around the moon so that scientists might study it for generations to come.[1] NASA also plans to send a mission to Europa, one of the large moons orbiting Jupiter. It takes 7 to 10 years to reach the Jovian system and the plan is to launch in the early 2020s, so don’t expect results immediately, but Europa is considered one of the more likely locations for simple extra-terrestrial life because of its large frozen ocean.[2]
ESA too has plans for a Jovian mission. Their spacecraft will visit three of Jupiter’s moons: Ganymede, Callisto, and Europa. The rationale for this trip is that all three moons likely contain water and might support life.[3] ESA has also expressed interest in establishing a lunar base on our own moon that would serve as a research base, much like the International Space Station. It would make a great jumping off point for even greater space exploration that might include missions to other star systems.[4]
In 2013, the Chinese National Space Agency was the first agency to soft land a spacecraft on the moon since the Russians last did in 1976 (Luna 24). CNSA presently has a lunar rover called Chang'e 3 on the moon’s service and they have stated that they plan many more lunar missions including some sample return missions.[5]
JAXA, in collaboration with ESA, will soon launch a Mercury orbiter that will study the magnetosphere of that planet.[6] Because of its proximity to the sun, and the difficulty of shielding instrumentation from extreme radiation, little is known about this planet; and the JAXA mission will be highly significant.
All of these missions will be of great interest as we watch them unfold over the next decades. I plan to watch each with great expectation, starting with the ExoMars show that has already begun.

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