Emma Foxell turns to the year ahead and looks at what is to be an exciting year for space exploration
2014 saw space missions invoke wonder with the landing of Rosetta’s Philae on comet 67P. Indeed we can expect more from this mission and many others this year. Here are some of the most exciting space missions to look out for in the year ahead.
What was the early Solar System like? NASA’s Dawn mission hopes to answer this and other questions by investigating the asteroids Vesta and Ceres in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Dawn already mapped rocky Vesta in 2011, revealing its iron core and vast basins from two large impacts. It will reach icy dwarf planet Ceres on 1st February 2015 and start orbiting it. Astrophysicists want to know why these two asteroids are so different. Dawn will investigate the internal structure and composition of Ceres by mapping its surface and element abundances. The discovery last year of water plumes on Ceres by ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory adds a new question of what could be powering them. Dawn will hope to investigate this and determine how water affects asteroid evolution. Ultimately this will contribute to our understanding of what the solar system was like in its formative years and how planets may evolve.
Our knowledge of dwarf planet Pluto and its moon Charon, along with our best image from the Hubble Space Telescope, is low quality. This is set to change with the arrival of the New Horizons mission to Pluto after 9 years, scheduled for 14th July 2015. This NASA mission will flyby the pair, investigating Pluto and Charon’s structures and compositions and mapping their surfaces. It will also study Pluto’s atmosphere, and search to see if Charon has one. Afterwards New Horizons will continue to another Kuiper Belt Object. New Horizons will increase our understanding of these strange icy worlds beyond Neptune and their place in our Solar System.
Rosetta and Philae
ESA’s Rosetta and Philae mission drew the headlines in 2014 with the dramatic landing of washing machine sized Philae on a comet surface in November. Unfortunately the landing did not go to plan as the harpoons failed to fire, so the spacecraft bounced off into the cliff shadows. Here it was a race against time to perform experiments before its solar powered batteries ran out. However, with summer approaching for Philae and the comet nearing the Sun, sunlight levels will increase and Philae should be able to wake up and continue performing experiments. Rosetta and Philae will observe up close the formation of comet 67P’s coma and tails in the run up to its closest approach to the Sun on 13th August 2015. The Rosetta mission will be invaluable for understanding comet formation and whether comets could have delivered the organic chemicals necessary for life to Earth.
Lunar X-Prize Competition and the Lunar Plant Growth Experiment
Dreams of living on the Moon may become one step closer to reality if the Lunar Plant Growth Experiment is successful. However instead of NASA sending their own spacecraft, they intend to hitch a lift on the winner of the Google Lunar X-Prize competition. This competition will see a private spacecraft company launch their own rover to the Moon in late 2015. The Lunar Plant Growth Experiment will investigate whether plants can grow in the Moon’s gravity and radiative conditions. It will be the first life sciences experiment on another planetary body, investigating the germination of basil, turnips and rockcress in a small sealed chamber for 5-10 days, with the spacecraft landing triggering the release of water to start the process. These seedlings will be photographed and compared to Earth based controls to investigate the viability of plants, and therefore humans, living on the Moon.
Image credits: NASA