The future of space exploration


So space is the in thing again. In the past few years we have had several missions that have caught the public’s imagination as well as enhanced our knowledge of celestial bodies in our universe.

We have sent a probe to a distant comet to determine its composition, we have sent a spacecraft past Pluto which has revealed so much about the mysterious ex-planet, and we have sent an orbiter to Jupiter to find out more about the atmosphere of our giant neighbour.

More locally in the UK we sent up our first fully funded astronaut to the International Space Station for 6 months, a mission linked with schools to inspire the next generation of astronomers and space explorers in the next 30 years. But was is planned for the future?

In the next couple of years the main launches into space will be local around the earth. In 2017, NASA will launch its Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), to aid in the discovery of extra solar worlds. The current exoplanet satellite, Kepler, has been responsible for discovering over 3000 new planets but has mainly been focusing on a patch of sky around the Cygnus, Lyra and Hercules area. TESS however will have the capability to view the entire celestial sphere and will target 200,000 stars, with a view to find small rocky worlds which will appear in front of their host star.

Once TESS has found no doubt thousands of candidates for new exoplanets, then its information can be followed up with the next big launch of viewing the universe when the James Webb Telescope is finally launched in 2018. This is the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, and will have the ability to look further into space and therefore further back in time, to discover more about how our universe was formed and to try to view some of the first galaxies formed after the Big Bang. Parts of the telescope were actually developed in Edinburgh, before being assembled in America.

A comparison between the James Webb Space Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope

So there will be plenty to view in the near future but what about human exploration. NASA has committed funding to maintain the ISS till 2020, and potentially till 2024, but some of the original parts launched in 1998 are needing constant maintenance and the solar panels are gradually producing less and less electricity to power the station and its experiments. There may be a point in the next 10 years when the station becomes too expensive to maintain, plus its survival depends on the good relationship between Russia and USA which may change in the next few years. So is there a successor in development?

Well yes there is, but it is not from NASA. China is new to the space exploration game, as well as India for that matter, and more and more countries are planning their own missions into space. China has already begun to develop its own space station, the Large Modular Space Station, which will be a quarter the size of the ISS and whose main capsule is due to launch in 2018. It is believed that NASA and ESA would negotiate with China to be able send up astronauts to the station should the ISS no longer be in flight around the Earth.

The International Space Station

Of course there is one target slightly further afield that NASA has its eye on, the Red Planet. It is hoped that by the 2030s NASA is ready to send a manned mission to Mars, and the start of this gradual process has already begun with the first test of the Orion Spacecraft in 2014. Over the next ten years NASA will push the Orion Spacecraft further and further away from Earth, including loops of the moon, before it is deemed ready to carry astronauts. Then we will spend longer and longer in ‘cislunar space’ ensuring prolonged habitation is up to standard before the long journey to Mars. There is also an ambitious project to redirect an asteroid into orbit around the moon, so astronauts could practice exploration and sample collecting before returning back to Earth. Robotic probes will continue to be sent to Mars, including the Mars 2020 Rover as well as a mission to perform a round trip to Mars and bring back samples to Earth. They will also test entry, decent and landing techniques and study what would be required to live off the land. Only after this decade of study would there finally be scope for sending astronauts to Mars. But are there any plans to live on Mars?

The Mars One project

Eventually from NASA yes, but an independent company might beat them to it. The Mars One project is a self-funded organisation whose main aim is to establish a settlement on Mars by 2032. Thousands applied to become one of their astronauts, and they have now been narrowed down to the final 100. The only issue is if you are selected then it is a one way trip. Before humans are sent there are several missions planned including a rover mission in 2022, a communication satellite put into orbit in 2024, a rover capable of transporting living pods as well as a second communications satellite in 2026, and cargo missions in 2029. The idea is that the rover will construct a base for the astronauts to live in before they arrive in 2032.

It’s an ambitious project, and one a few have claimed is just a publicity stunt, but if it does come to pass then it is one of many space developments to get excited about over the next two decades.

Leave a Reply