In search of the universe: current space missions and those being developed for the future

The study of the universe is experiencing one of its best decades and a large number of space missions  are under development. 

These are the most important ones and the status of your progress.

United States vs. China, the current engine of competition

Leaving aside the recent crisis caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the last few years have set a rivalry in all industries between the United States and China and astronomy has been no exception.

Under a more reserved model, the Asian country has become the nation with the highest growth in its missions to space, creating a large number of projects that not only compete with the current NASA ones, but also go further in ambitions.

In conquest of the Moon

At the moment, statewide, the largest space project in humanity is Artemisa , a cooperation between the North American agency and its European (ESA), Japanese (JAXA), Canadian (CSA), Brazilian (AEB), Australian ( ASA) and Mexicans (AEM). The goal is clear: to put man back on the Moon and try to colonize it.

Artemis , name of the sister of Apollo, denomination of the first lunar missions, is divided into three phases, the last being the one that attempts the moon landing with the first woman in history.

Unfortunately for your interests, it is a mission with many delays. Proposed and promoted by former President Donald Trump, the lack of resources and the pandemic have forced NASA to change its estimated arrival year from 2024 to 2025. The first Artemis mission , which was due to leave in 2021, has not yet taken flight due to to problems in the motors of the SLS rocket and to the bad meteorological conditions in Florida . Its first flight is expected to take place in November of this year, with the Orion capsule orbiting the Moon without passengers.

China is not up to the task of a moon landing mission, but its Chang’e (named after the Chinese goddess of the Moon) projects have been more than successful and unique. It was the first country to arrive with a robot on the far side of the Moon in 2019 , the YuTu-2 and with the Chang’5 in 2020 it brought the first lunar samples to Earth in more than 40 years .

But not content with this, missions 6, 7 and 8, scheduled for 2024 and 20027, will seek to analyze the accounts of the South Pole for the development and exploitation of lunar resources for the possible construction of a scientific base.

While Artemis will depend in its later phases on Gateway , an orbital station in which NASA and ESA cooperate, China is in partnership with Russia for the International Lunar Research Station (IRLS) . Since they depend on future Chang’e missions, their construction is still expected to be completed from 2035.

In short, while NASA is closer to returning to the Martian surface, it is China that has the greatest discoveries about the composition and mysteries of the satellite.

In conquest of Mars

On the Mars side, things are more even. The United States currently maintains a number of important missions on the Martian surface such as InSight ( about to shut down due to multiple errors it maintains ), Curiosity and Perseverance.

The nicknamed ‘Percy’ is one of the key names of recent years. Developed and manufactured by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), its mission is to investigate Jezero Crater, where a huge ancient lake is believed to have existed, and find biosignatures that are evidence of off-planet life. To date, scientists have already obtained potential biological signatures that can change the destiny of humanity once they are officially studied with the samples that return to the planet in a joint mission with ESA.

But not content with this, he has also managed to create experiments such as the creation or purification of oxygen from the predominant carbon dioxide on the planet .

Beside him, in the arid Martian lands, a small helicopter breaks flight records . Ingenuity has spent more than 30 launches, each time longer and faster, in the thin atmosphere of the planet.

Around the same time, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) officially launched the Tianwen-1 mission , made up of an orbiter, a lander and another robot, Zhurong, to Mars.

Tianwen-1 ‘s mission is comprehensive: it will conduct scientific research on the Martian soil, geological structure, environment, atmosphere and water. The goal is similar: find the traces of past Martian life, however tiny.

Zhurong, yes, is working much slower than his North American counterpart. He has found structures shaped by water , but has yet to make any further progress on samples in the search for prehistoric life.

SpaceX and the United Arab Emirates watch closely

Officially separated from these two countries, but with connections at multiple points, SpaceX , a private company led by Elon Musk, is seeking to reach the Moon and Mars to colonize it on its own under the Starship project .

This huge ship wants to transport cargo and humans to both stars in order to create a space society under its own laws and mandates .

This mechanism is overdue as Starbase, SpaceX ‘s launch site , has undergone multiple reviews by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). At the moment, it will only be tested in an orbital flight that will test the consistency of the Raptor engines that make up the ship and its propeller.

Starship ‘s orbital flight is expected to be accomplished in the remainder of the year or in the first half of 2023 . From there, it is still a mystery the date on which to try to reach the Moon and the Red Planet.

And in a less mediatic way, but just as important, the United Arab Emirates is investigating Mars through Hope, a probe that will create a planetary map with its climates. “The National Space Strategy”, not content with this, is also preparing to launch its first astronaut into space, also trying to end the bias and discrimination that women in Arab countries have.

The International Space Station enters its final course

The most important orbital ship of humanity today, the International Space Station (ISS, for its acronym in English), is reaching the end of its days. It is believed that its useful life will end in 2024, but NASA and SpaceX are trying to extend its presence to the end of 2030.

The problem is that the geopolitical conflict between Russia and the United States is making coordination difficult. As we explained in a previous article , Russia is largely in charge of the push and maneuver functions of the most important modules of the station, so the crisis and the breakdown of relations have caused the Eurasian country to announce its Withdrawal from world ship cooperation , announcing its own station called ROSS for the remainder of the decade .

Fortunately, the astronauts and cosmonauts are now friends and are sharing flights both to and from space. For example, Soyuz rockets brought cosmonauts and an astronaut to the ISS early in the war in a completely clean and unconflicted act of development . Recently, SpaceX itself sent the Crew-5 mission from the United States with a Russian captain in its ranks.

In terms of transportation, Elon Musk’s company is the most benefited. His colleague, Boeing, has not yet managed to launch any manned mission to the ISS due to multiple delays , while SpaceX already has six missions with astronauts on board. The Starliner rocket’s first manned mission is tentatively scheduled for early next year, with NASA assigning two astronauts to take the capsule for its maiden manned test voyage in June.

NASA wants that, once the International Space Station is withdrawn from circulation, private stations will govern the orbit. The space agency is financing the Orbital Reef projects (from Blue Origin and Sierra Space), Starlab (Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin), in addition to Northrop Grumman, so that they can reach outer space and be the scientific laboratories. The agency, instead of worrying about its maintenance, will later only be in charge of renting the spaces for its own investigations, while the private ones can rent their spaces for entertainment, tourism and more.

But while all this is happening, China is already preparing its own station called ‘Tiangong’ or “Heavenly Palace” , which should be fully operational by the end of 2022.

This ship will be exclusively for Chinese and will work in a similar way to the ISS, with taikonauts, the name given to Chinese scientists, building the ship and attaching the new modules to Tianhe, the central one. The crews will also work for six months and will be relieved by others, although an uninterrupted presence during their years of action is not guaranteed.

More missions to consider

Although all the missions mentioned are the tip of the iceberg, there are more of vital importance to understand how the Earth was formed and how life came to our planet, as well as to search for more proof that “we are not alone in the universe”.

Psyche: NASA will send a probe to the asteroid Psyche, which is believed to be rich in precious materials and could be invaluable if it were to be exploited. It was planned to be released in 2022, but a delay caused it to no longer maintain a release window . It is expected to reach the star in 2029 or 2030.

ExoMars : the European Space Agency (ESA) was going to launch a mission in conjunction with Russia in 2022, but the war has caused communications to be cut off and it is done unilaterally. Its objectives are to search for clues to life both in the past and today, to investigate how water and the Martian geochemical environment vary over time, to study the composition of trace gases in the atmosphere as well as their sources of origin, while testing the technology to make a hypothetical mission that would bring samples back from Mars viable.

JUICE: The same agency is programming the JUpiter ICy moons Explorer to explore the Jovian moons Ganymede, Europa and Callisto, which appear to harbor oceans of water and ice that may be favorable for the development of life as we know it. The probe is expected to arrive in 2030 and launch in 2023.

Apophis: The OSIRIS-REx ( which will change its name to OSIRIS-APEX in this new mission ) will travel to the asteroid to learn about its composition and confirm if it really is dangerous for the planet. When the asteroid Apophis was discovered in 2004, it appeared to be heading towards Earth with a risk of impact in 2029 with potentially catastrophic results.

Dragonfly: The US space agency will send a drone to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, in order to study its chemistry and find possibilities for life on its surface. It is expected to launch in 2027.

DAVINCI: NASA is preparing two missions for the “hell of Venus”. By 2028 and 2030, DAVINCI+ and VERITAS will be launched with the aim of studying the clouds and all the conditions of the planet’s atmosphere, trying to find clues of life in it .

Visiting Uranus: The enigmatic Uranus is the next target, chosen as the “star” planet of this next decade by NASA . The mission to the ice giant is called UOP (Uranus Orbiter and Probe), will last 19 years and is planned to launch between 2031 and 2038.

Orbilander: This probe wants to reach the satellite in 2050 to analyze and better understand its conditions and find out if there is life on this star . Orbilander would rely on a complex set of instruments to determine whether Enceladus’s water has a mix of chemicals conducive to life as we know it, looking for amino acids, lipids and cells.

If the present in the field of exploration is already exciting, the future is even more so. How much more will we discover about our universe in the coming years?