It’s going to be a bumper time for space missions in 2024—especially to the Moon, our nearest neighbor. Here are some interesting space missions to watch out for this year.
Nasa’s series of Commercial Lunar Payload Service (CLPS) missions, many of which will launch in 2024, are set to bring a variety of instruments to the Moon. These missions are built and launched by different private companies under contract from Nasa.
The CLPS program is part of Nasa’s Artemis initiative to continue human exploration of the Moon. One of the main aims of the programme is to investigate the possibilities of using lunar resources as fuel—hence, some of the instruments on CLPS-1, aka Peregrine, are designed to assess the amount of hydrogen on the lunar surface.
CLPS-2 is timetabled to launch in early January 2024, and there are four other CLPS missions planned for launch throughout the year. That is the good thing about the Moon—it’s so close that there aren’t many worries about launch windows (no complicated orbits to compute) or distance to travel.
Indeed, it is hoped that human exploration of the Moon will take a small step forward, possibly as early as November 2024, when Artemis II orbits the Moon for several days. One of the astronauts on-board will be female—definitely a giant leap in what has, until now, been a solely masculine exploration of our nearest neighbor.
The launch of Chang’e 6, the latest Chinese mission to the Moon, is planned for May 2024 and is intended to bring material back to Earth. This is particularly significant because the spacecraft will collect material from the lunar farsid –the South Pole Aitkin Basin.
This is a region where it is believed there is abundant frozen water. We do not have any samples of material from this part of the Moon—and although any ice will be long gone by the time the samples are back on Earth, it is anticipated we will learn a lot about this unexplored region and its potential as a source of water for human visitors.
Launching almost at the same time as Hera is a Nasa flagship mission: the Europa Clipper to Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa.
This mission has been long-awaited, ever since the Galileo mission first showed us views of Europa’s icy surface in the late 1990s. Since then, we have learnt about the ocean that lurks beneath the icy shell. Excitingly, Europa may host life in the form of a substantial fauna analogous to the animals that live on the deep ocean floor around hydrothermal vents.
Europa Clipper will fly past Europa between 40 and 50 times, taking detailed images of the surface, monitoring the satellite for icy plumes—and, most importantly, looking to see whether this moon has the conditions suitable to support life. The mission will also investigate whether Europa’s ocean is salty, and whether the essential building blocks of life (carbon, nitrogen and sulphur) are present.
Sadly though, it is not until 2030 that any of these observations will be transmitted back to us, so we will have to wait patiently until then. The investigation will be complemented by observations from Esa’s Juice mission, which is currently on its way to Jupiter. The Conversation
Image credits: Ceres Robotics/NASA