To Mars and boldly beyond: space missions to look out for

A new world of space exploration is unfolding over the next few years, from the ExoMars robot drilling to asteroid exploration, the ESA’s mission to Jupiter’s icy moons and the Solar Orbiter


If there was ever life on Mars, it probably existed during the first billion years following the planet’s formation, when the Martian surface was far warmer and wetter than today. The central aim of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission, is to seek out any remaining bio-signatures left behind. The mission’s first launch, of an orbiter that will sample the Martian atmosphere, is scheduled for next year. The highlight, though, will be the arrival of the six-wheeled ExoMars Rover, due to go up in 2018. The rover follows the Curiosity robot, but while Curiosity could only penetrate a few centimetres beneath the Martian soil, ExoMars will be able to drill two metres below the surface to search for preserved organic matter protected from the harsh surface radiation. ESA scientists are currently debating the landing site for the rover most likely to yield signs of ancient life – a likely option is an ancient riverbed which would have been a watery environment in the past and where sediments would have been buried and preserved quickly in the past.

Lester Waugh, engineering manager at Eads Astrium space agency. with the ExoMars Rover, which will be sent to Mars to explore the planet's surface.
Lester Waugh, engineering manager at Eads Astrium space agency. with the ExoMars Rover, which will be sent to Mars to explore the planet’s surface. Photograph: Graham Turner

Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM)

The world was gripped when the Rosetta mission carried out the incredible feat of landing a spacecraft on a comet. Nasa has hatched an, arguably, even bolder plan to send a robotic spacecraft to grab a four-metre chunk of asteroid, tow it along and place it in orbit about the moon. The mission is in the planning stages – if funded it would launch in 2020 – but if it goes ahead the manoeuvres involved could provide some of the most dramatic moments of space exploration to date. The spacecraft would slowly spiral out of Earth orbit and then spend about two years chasing the target asteroid. A set of anchoring grippers would retrieve several tons of asteroid material (another option considered was using a gigantic “capture” bag). Why bother capturing a pet asteroid? Scientists say it would be good practice for if Earth was ever threatened with an impact from a giant asteroid that we wanted to redirect.

Asteroid exploration.
Asteroid exploration. Photograph: EuroStyle Graphics / Alamy/Alamy

Orion Spacecraft

Nasa’s Orion spacecraft is designed to take humans deeper into space than ever before, with the ultimate goal of going to Mars in the mid-2030s. Orion is bigger than Apollo, designed to carry up to six astronauts, and far more advanced than its predecessor. A successful unmanned test flight took place in 2014, but the big question is where the spacecraft will go next, once astronauts are on board. The first manned flight of Orion is due in 2021. A possible interim step, before Mars, would be visiting the ARM captured asteroid (assuming that mission goes ahead) and collecting samples in the mid-2020s. Such a mission might replicate some of the operational challenges of a Mars mission, but a real unknown is the question of whether the human body could tolerate spending long durations in deep space. Solar and cosmic radiation is intense and living in low gravity is known to rapidly degrade bone and muscle strength.


The European Space Agency’s Jupiter icy moons explorer (Juice) mission is due to launch in 2022 and will give us the richest detail yet of the Jovian moons.

The spacecraft, which will take around eight years to arrive, will make a series of flybys of Callisto and Europa, before settling into orbit around Ganymede, the largest moon in the solar system. All three of the moons are suspected to have liquid oceans of water beneath thick crusts of ice at the surface, making them potentially the most likely places in the solar system for life to be able to thrive today. The conditions beneath the surface of Europa have been compared to Antarctica’s subglacial lakes. The spacecraft will peer beneath the icy surfaces using radar imaging and will also beam back images of the icy, fractured lunar surfaces.

Solar Orbiter

The European Space Agency’s sun-observing satellite is set to be launched in 2018 and will travel closer to the sun than any mission yet flown. The spacecraft will go into orbit approximately 21m miles from the surface, closer to the orbit of Mercury. The spacecraft’s sun-facing side will reach about 600C.

The pictures will reveal the sun’s weird landscapes and violent activity in unprecedented detail, showing flares, coronal mass ejections, swirling gases and the formation of loops in the strong magnetic field. The on-board camera is designed to show details spanning just 110 miles - for comparison, the Sun’s visible disc is 800,000 miles wide. The Orbiter will be the first to provide close-up views of the sun’s polar regions, which are almost impossible to observe from Earth. The rare view of the solar poles will help us to understand how the sun’s internal dynamo generates its powerful magnetic field and the observations could also reveal for the first time what happens when the sun’s magnetic field flips direction as it did in 2013.

James Webb Telescope

Since 1990, the Hubble Space telescope has brought the world images of startling beauty and insights into the earliest niverse. The James Webb Telescope, scheduled for a 2018 launch, is its natural successor. The telescope will feature a sunshield the size of a tennis court and a 6.5-metre mirror, the largest to be launched into space. While Hubble looked mostly in the visible range, James Webb will be focused on infrared, which will allow it to gaze back to the primordial universe to see the first stars and galaxies forming after the Big Bang. The telescope should allow astronomers to hone in on some of the growing list of exoplanets (the catalogue now extends to thousands) to observe them directly. Until now, we have only had the crudest information about these other distant worlds – mass, orbit, approximate temperature – mostly gathered from indirect observations of them passing in front of their host star. Observations with the James Webb will be able to observe the planets directly, including whether their atmospheres contain carbon dioxide, methane and water vapour.


Hannah Devlin science correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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