As long as humanity has existed, people have looked to the stars. They were used for navigation or just to tell stories or explain the universe. Mankind has always dreamt of reaching into the cosmos, and with technology constantly growing, that dream is now a reality. We are reaching further into the sky to learn more about the universe and our own Earth.
In order for us to understand the direction of development for new missions, the history of space exploration should be known. The new age of exploration began in 1957 when the Soviet Union successfully launched a satellite, Sputnik, into low-earth orbit. This launch also kickstarted the Space Race between the Soviet Union and the United States of America. In 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, orbiting the Earth once. In that same year, Alan Shepard became the first American in space. Marking a new step in outer-space research, Mariner 4, an American spacecraft, began transmitting photographs of Mars in 1965. In “a giant leap for mankind”. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon in 1969. Setting the stage for further exploration into the cosmos, the United States launched the first space station, Skylab, into orbit in 1973. In 1972, Viking 2 discovers water frost on Mars, paving the way for future studies on possible life on the red planet, and in 1997, the Mars Pathfinder rover lands and begins transmitting images. In 2009, the Kepler space telescope was launched in an effort to search for planets the size of Earth orbiting other stars. Setting a precedent for future commercial companies, SpaceX successfully launched a rocket, Falcon 9, into orbit and retrieves in successfully, a first for a non-government company. These past events set the stage for the growth of space programs around the world.
The future of space exploration has already been planned for many years ahead. One of the soonest, the EXOMars mission is set to launch in 2020. The mission will take a European rover and a Russian surface platform to Mars, taking 9 months to travel from earth. This mission is being operated by the European Space Agency, also known as the ESA, and Roscosmos, the Russian space Program. EXOMars plans to collect samples to search for any signs of life or habitable conditions on Mars.
The next mission is Euclid, also set to launch in 2020. Euclid is operated by the European Space Agency, and will research dark matter and dark energy. The universe is expanding, and the rate at which it does so is accelerating. The source thought to be responsible for this is referred to as dark energy, and represents up to 75% of the energy content in the universe today. Euclid aims to study this energy, to better understand the accelerating growth of the universe as well as the physics behind the creation of the universe.
Prospector 1, operated by Deep Space industries, intends to revolutionize commercial goals involving space. The launch date is not yet set, but is expected to launch between 2020 and 2030. Prospector 1 will land on a near Earth asteroid to analyze the materials found, and determine their worth. If this mission goes well, Deep Space Industries hopes that it will inspire other companies to look to space for materials, and allow for a lower cost alternative to sending some supplies into space.
Operated by NASA, the Europa Clipper is set to launch in 2022. Europa will orbit Jupiter, to avoid the strong radiation the planet projects onto its moon, Europa. The spacecraft will makes several quick passes near Europa to research its oceans and icy crust. Europa Clipper will study the thickness of the icy surface, the depth and salinity of the ocean, search for any subsurface lakes, and determine whether or not the ocean could harbor life.
The Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, also known as JUICE, will also study Jupiter and its moons. Operated by the European Space Agency and launching in 2022, JUICE will spend two years in orbit around Jupiter, studying the planet and 3 of its moons; Callisto, Ganymede, and Europa. JUICE will map the surfaces of these moons, as well as study the ocean layers and the physical properties of the icy surface, and research Jupiter’s exosphere.
In 2034, the European Space Agency will launch the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, LISA for short. The Laser Interferometer Space Antenna consists of three spacecrafts, arranged in an equilateral triangle, each separated by millions of miles. LISA will trail behind the earth in an effort to detect any distortions in spacetime. These distortions, known as gravitational waves, are caused by the collisions between supermassive black holes.
The Breakthrough Starshot, operated by Breakthrough Initiatives, is set to launch in 2036. The technology behind this mission seems so implausible, but if the mission succeeds, it will open the way for advancements in space travel. The mission will use light beam technology as power to launch nanocrafts up to speeds of 100 million miles per hour. This will allow the tiny space probes to reach Alpha Centauri in only 20 years, and will fly by Proxima B to study the exoplanet. Proxima B is the closest known exoplanet to our solar system, orbiting Alpha Centauri and possibly being able to harbor life. Breakthrough Initiatives hopes that this mission will go well and prove that light propulsion is a probable future source of fuel.
Further exploration into space is necessary for many different reasons. The more efficient space travel becomes, the easier it will be for private companies to utilize the many materials that are much more common in space. Travelling further into space will necessitate the growth of technology. For example, the technology used in the ISS has been used to benefit developing countries on earth. The water filtration system used on the space station is easy to use, and collects water from the atmosphere to bring potable water to communities. The medical community has benefitted as well. Advanced robotics developed to work remotely in space have also been adapted for everyday life. The Canadian Space Agency created the Canadarm 1 and 2, and the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (Dextre). These robots were designed to build and maintain the space station, but inspired the creation of the NeuroArm, which is a robot that allows surgeons to operate with higher precision in an MRI machine.
Exploration and discovery has been a part of humanity for centuries, and continues to this day. The new age of space exploration has opened new doors of possibility and discovery into the universe. Since the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into orbit, mankind has tried to expand further into space to discover the secrets of the infinite cosmos.