What the next decade of planetary exploration holds – Sky & Telescope

A planetary vision for the next decade.
National Academies of Sciences

It’s Outside The planetary science community has released a report outlining a vision for the next decade. The 10-Year Survey, the culmination of years of steering committees, white papers, advisory groups, and conferences, represents the commands of NASA (and to some extent NSF) over 10 years of exploration of planets — and exoplanets.

National Academies of Sciences Decade overview for planetary sciences and astrobiologytitled Origins, worlds, and life: a nodal strategy for planetary sciences and astrobiology 2023-2032It’s the third hottest wishlist of its kind, and as always, all major concepts still need rounds of financing, design and development before they hit the launch pad.

last decade

A look at the last decade-long survey titled Visions and JourneysIt shows the impact that these efforts can have. This report is included as a high priority on the Mars Astrobiology and Sample Cache mission, which is the permanent rover currently exploring the Jezero Crater on the Red Planet. Perseverance is putting the samples on shelves as a first step in the Mars Sample Return initiative, for which the returning rover will launch into the 2026 launch window. The orbiter mission, now called Europa Clipper, is scheduled to launch in 2026. 2020 2024.

Visions and Journeys It also identified topics for smaller missions, dubbed the New Horizons and Discovery missions by NASA. These themes eventually led to the choice of dragonflyThe nuclear powered helicopter that will fly to the moon Titan in 2027, and Lucy And spirit Also asteroid missions Da Vinci and Veritas Venus missions will fly later this decade.

This year’s champions

In addition to the ongoing development and support of these projects, the recent decade-long survey prioritizes some big and exciting mission concepts.

as a new top priority Main missionWhich, by definition, has a budget of over $1 billion, the report recommends Uranus probe and probe. This would be a large Cassini-style mission to the ice giant and its moons, and would involve a probe penetrating the atmosphere. So far, we’ve only seen Uranus up close once, during the short Voyager 2 flight in 1986. Uranus beat Neptune with Jupiter in the 2031-2038 launch window due to the flexibility of current launch vehicles and technology. help.

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An early 2011 draft proposal for a potential Uranus mission.
Decimal Study for NASA/NRC

The second highest priority among the flagships is the orbiter and lander that will fly to Saturn’s moon Enceladus, named in the report as Enceladus Orblander. This moon is a dynamic world with a subsurface ocean that may contain the complex processes needed to support life. Cassini has seen plumes of glacial springs on several flights, and Enceladus Orblander can sample them and examine the lunar surface up close.

Four other major concepts were in the works: the Europa, Mercury Lander, Neptune/Triton lander, and a major mission to Venus.

Illustration of an Orlander on Enceladus
An artist’s concept of an orbiter on Enceladus.
NASA

As guiding principles, the survey identified 12 key science questions on three main themes: origins, worlds and processes, and life and habitability. Covering everything from how giant planets formed to whether we’ll find extraterrestrial life, these questions will help with mission selection.

“Think [the decadal] “It’s a very compelling vision for space exploration for the next decade and beyond,” says Jonathan Fortney (University of California, Santa Cruz). I think it’s a great combination of getting new data from some of the hottest regions and being fundamentally new to exploration and exploration.”

The role of the smallest missions

NASA has two small classes of missions, with New Frontiers offering roughly twice the budget of the Discovery class missions but with a slower launch cadence. The selection for New Frontiers 5, which has been covered over the past decade and was originally scheduled for October 2022, has been pushed back to October 2024.

The decade-long new survey includes the following two rounds, New Frontiers 6 and 7, which will take us all the way to 2032. Rather than recommending specific tasks for this competitive selection, the report outlines detailed topics for consideration:

  • Centaur asteroid probe and landing
  • Send the sample back to Ceres
  • Comet surface sample return mission
  • Enceladus mission with multiple flights
  • lunar geophysical network
  • Saturn probe
  • Titan Orbiter
  • Triton Ocean World Surveyor (added only for New Frontiers 7)
  • flower searcher on site
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The report does not specify specific topics for the Discovery program, but recommends that NASA continue to select two Discovery-class missions per round. The report also recommends raising the cost ceiling for exploration-class missions from $500 million to $800 million.

In addition, the contract also recommends raising the cap from $55 million to $80 million for NASA’s Innovative Small Planet Exploration Missions (SIMPLEx) and very small, low-cost, high-risk projects.

For our next step on Mars, the report prioritizes Mars Life Explorer as the next mission to be developed after the return of Mars samples is completed.

For lunar exploration, the survey recommends developing Endurance A, a large sample return mission that will visit the moon’s south pole. It will collect about 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of samples that astronauts will return to Earth as part of the Artemis initiative. The report states that planetary exploration goals should be a priority for Artemis, not a secondary goal.

The report also notes NASA’s need to address the lack of technology funding for planetary science missions, which has fallen to just 4% in recent years. To correct this and achieve the goals outlined in the report, the committee recommends that NASA’s Planetary Science Division increase funding to 6-8% of the total budget from previous levels.

Planetary Research Budget Planner
Project costs in the decadal survey over time.
National Academies of Sciences

planetary defense

NASA’s planetary defense goals are consistent with Brown’s Law, which requires NASA to identify 90% of near-Earth asteroids larger than 140 meters in diameter by 2020. As of 2021, scientists have classified only a third of this group. The NEO Surveyor mid-infrared space telescope, already in development, will be crucial to finding more of these potentially threatened space rocks. The upcoming Vera C. Rubin Observatory is an addition to the NEO survey, but not a replacement.

The report also called on NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office to work with the US Space Command to discover near-Earth asteroids. Ground-based radar and other trackers provide the opportunity to characterize small near-Earth asteroids, including the upcoming near pass of 99942 Apophis on April 13, 2029. The recent Arecibo loss makes the need to improve tracking and the space network particularly urgent.

Diversity and Equality

First, this decade-long survey underscores the urgent need to advance diversity and equity in the field of planetary science. The report states that “ensuring the broadest possible participation is critical to producing high-quality science in an environment of fierce competition for limited human resources.” “The rich and unprecedented diversity of the people of the United States is NASA’s greatest asset, but only if that diversity is exploited through robust recruitment and selection processes…and fair compensation structures.”

To that end, the report recommends that NASA’s Directorate of Planetary Sciences believe that bias can be often omnipresent and unintended, and that the agency should work to “remove bias from its actions wherever it is found.”

The need for plutonium

The report also highlights plutonium-238 production, which resumed in 2013, as crucial to the future of space exploration. The source of radiant energy is needed for the Uranus and Enceladus missions, which travel too far from the Sun to use solar panels. The report recommends that NASA review plutonium requirements for next-generation missions and increase production if necessary.

Geysers Enceladus
Cassini spies on ice sources on Enceladus.
NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Satellites vs. near-Earth asteroids

Finally, the report notes the impact that the emergence of satellite constellations such as SpaceX’s Starlink, OneWeb in the UK, and Amazon’s Project Kuiper will have on efforts to effectively search for near-Earth asteroids. The report therefore urges NASA, the National Science Foundation and the astronomical community to continue monitoring satellite swarms and explore ways to mitigate their impact on observations.

The next decade promises exciting years of planetary space exploration. I, for example, can’t wait to see the crescent of Saturn above the icy horizon of Enceladus, not to mention new images of Uranus and its moons. Let’s see, by 2042 it will be me. . .


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