12 Upcoming Space Missions From the Moon to Alpha Centauri | Unveiled
VOICE OVER: Peter DeGiglio
WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson & Nick Roffey
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We're travelling from the Moon to Mars to Alpha Centauri! In this video, Unveiled recaps all of the most exciting planned space missions in the next few years. What do you think? Which of these missions are you most looking forward to?
12 Upcoming Space Missions From the Moon to Alpha Centauri
We’re exploring the worlds beyond our pale blue dot in more detail than ever before! What will we learn? Will we finally find extraterrestrial life?
This is Unveiled, and today we’re taking a closer look at the most promising and fascinating upcoming space missions, both planned and proposed!
We’ll be starting with destinations closest to home, working our way out to the far-flung corners of the solar system - and beyond.
For now, let’s begin in low Earth orbit. The International Space Station is currently alone up there - not including satellites and the Hubble Telescope. But it will soon have a neighbor. The China National Space Administration has ambitious plans to start launching modules for their own space station in 2021. It will be China’s third after Tiangong-1 and 2. The intention is that, unlike its two predecessors, this one will be permanent. The CNSA will use the Long March 5B rocket to launch materials into orbit. It’s thought that the space station will be able to aid future manned moon missions for China, who already made lunar history when Chang’e 4 became the first spacecraft to soft land on the far side of the moon in 2019.
The last time humans set foot on the moon themselves was back in 1972. NASA is heading back, however, in the 2020s. The Artemis program will kick off with an uncrewed test flight in November 2021, and aims to land astronauts on lunar soil by 2024, including the first woman. While it’s not necessarily part of the Artemis program, NASA is also planning to build the Lunar Gateway, a space station in lunar orbit, the construction of which will also begin in 2024. It might not be useful to the first Artemis astronauts, but it’s sure to be an invaluable tool for lunar exploration in the late 2020s, 2030s, and beyond. Both programs involve global cooperation from leading space agencies.
While it’ll be fascinating to further explore the moon, nothing beats peering into the far reaches of space. Launched in 1990, the Hubble Telescope is still operational; but it’s set to be succeeded by the new and improved James Webb Space Telescope. Rather than orbiting Earth like Hubble, however, it will orbit the Sun, while keeping pace with our home planet from roughly one million miles away. Unfortunately, the James Webb Telescope has been plagued by delays and its original budget has ballooned to over $10 billion! Be that as it may, it’s set to launch October 2021. The telescope will function in a much wider spectrum of light than Hubble, largely focusing on infrared; this means it’ll be able to capture low-light stars, like red dwarf stars, and observe entire galaxies previously hidden from view.
Of course, one of the principal goals of space exploration is also to search for signs of extraterrestrial life. In September 2020, researchers claimed to have detected a biosignature in Venus’ atmosphere, in the form of phosphine gas. That makes the Indian Space Research Organisation’s proposed orbiter Shukrayaan-1 especially exciting. With a possible launch date of 2024, the orbiter would study the composition of Venus’ atmosphere. Meanwhile, Russia is planning their own mission to our hellish sister planet. Venera-D would consist of a lander and orbiter and launch as early as 2026. NASA is also looking into proposals, including the atmospheric probe DAVINCI and the surface-mapping spacecraft VERITAS.
An even better place to look for signs of life though might be Mars. If there was once life there, we’re closer than ever to finding it. In February 2021, NASA’s Perseverance rover touched down in Jezero Crater, which was once a lake, to search for signs of extraterrestrial life. It was a big month for Mars, also seeing the arrival of the United Arab Emirates’ orbiter Hope and China’s spacecraft Tianwen-1, which will deploy its own rover. Perseverance - or “Percy” - is also carrying a small, autonomous helicopter, Ingenuity, to scout the Martian landscape. Excitingly, the rover will leave behind samples for a possible retrieval mission that could launch as early as 2026. Such a mission would need to consist of a lander, fetch rover, and ascent rocket. Concepts are still being considered, but hopes are high that we could one day study Martian samples in person.
Perseverance will soon be joined by Rosalind Franklin, previously known as the ExoMars rover. Named after an English chemist, it’s being developed for a joint mission between the European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos, which is building both the launcher and the lander. Originally slated to launch in July of 2020, it’s now set to launch sometime in 2022. The solar-powered rover is heading to Oxia Planum, a large plain full of clay deposits that was once rich in water. There, it too will search for signs of past Martian life.
Mind you, while sending rovers to Mars is nice … imagine actually GOING there ourselves. Well, it might happen sooner than you think. Hopeful future Martian Elon Musk initially had the lofty aim of sending the first unmanned mission in 2022 and a crewed mission in 2024. Those dates have been pushed back: the unmanned mission is now slated for 2024, and the first humans in 2026. This, of course, depends on the completion of the SpaceX Starship, the vehicle designed to take humans to the Red Planet. It’s an ambitious timeline, and the dates aren’t set in stone. But when it happens, it could mark just the beginning of our presence on Mars; Musk hopes we’ll have a city there by 2050.
While much of our interest in space exploration revolves around our moon and Mars, Mars also has two intriguing moons of its own, Phobos and Deimos. They haven’t gotten much attention to date, but a Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency mission set to launch in 2024 will change that. By August 2025, the “Martian Moons eXploration” probe – or “MMX” – will have reached and landed on Phobos. It will also perform fly-bys of Deimos, the smaller moon, before its mission ends and the probe returns with samples to Earth. It’s aiming to find out how Mars’s moons were formed. Other space agencies, including NASA, are designing additional equipment for the probe.
Moons and planets are all well and good - but let’s not forget the little guys! Beyond Mars lies the asteroid belt that divides the inner and outer planets. In 2022, the spacecraft Psyche will set off on a four year voyage to one of the solar system’s weirdest asteroids – “16 Psyche”. This asteroid is believed by scientists to be the exposed core of a protoplanet that was on its way to becoming a true planet, before a collision broke it up. The information Psyche collects will hopefully teach us about how planets form. Another NASA mission, Lucy, will go further afield, studying asteroids in the main belt and also close to Jupiter’s orbit.
Speaking of Jupiter, there’s a lot to be learned from the gas giant’s largest moons. In 2022, the European Space Agency’s JUICE mission will launch for a closer look. The Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, or “JUICE”, will take seven years to reach its destination, arriving at the Jovian system in late 2029. It’s going to do flybys of Callisto, Europa, and Ganymede, all of which may host subsurface oceans and have the potential for alien life. In 2032, JUICE will go into orbit around Ganymede, becoming the first man-made probe to orbit an alien moon. When it runs out of fuel around two years later, it will crash into the surface. In the meantime, NASA’s Europa Clipper will reach Europa in 2030 to investigate the moon’s habitability, and identify a landing site for their proposed Europa Lander.
A hop, skip and a jump of about 400 million miles past Jupiter, and we’re at Saturn. One of the most promising bodies in the solar system for supporting life is Saturn’s largest moon Titan, with its liquid methane lakes. To date, however, we’ve been working with limited knowledge based on the findings of a handful of missions. In 2027, NASA is looking to launch the Dragonfly spacecraft, a robotic rotorcraft that will explore Titan’s surface. Dragonfly should finally be able to tell us whether Titan might be able to support human life – or even alien life – more effectively than the inner planets. But even if all goes to plan, it’s still not going to arrive at Titan until 2036, so we’ve got a long wait ahead!
It’s far from the longest voyage being considered though. To take us out on an aspirational note, there’s also the proposed project Breakthrough Starshot. To be honest, it could also be called “longshot”; it’s less likely than the other missions here, but so crazy ambitious we had to include it. A research project of the privately-funded Breakthrough Initiatives, Starshot would consist of tiny light sail probes called Starchips, propelled by ground-based lasers. It’s hoped these could flyby the exoplanet Proxima Centauri b, orbiting Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to our Sun and part of the triple-star Alpha Centauri system. It’s more a proof of concept project for now, but it was co-founded by Yuri Milner, the late Stephen Hawking, and Mark Zuckerberg - so it has both brains and money behind it. Breakthrough Initiatives also has other big plans, such as a probe to search for signs of life in Enceladus’ plumes. Their ambitions may be wild, but who knows - maybe they’ll have Facebook on Proxima Centauri b one day!
And these are the most promising and fascinating upcoming space missions to watch out for!