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Going into 2020, here's what the future holds for space exploration

How 2020 will shape space exploration for years to come

By Angela Garrity, Guest blogger 

The future of space exploration starts here, as the Incredible Jeff leads us through the journey of seeing the sights in the final chapter of The Humanity in Space six-part Science Segment.

The most widely known new project and the current short-term goal of continued space exploration is the return to the Moon. NASA has unveiled its plans for the Artemis program, which will begin with Artemis-1.

A photo of the dusty orange surface of Mars, shown with Space technology

Artemis-1 will be the second planned flight of the uncrewed Orion spacecraft, to be launched on the recently tested space launch system or SLS rocket. Aretmis-1 is planned to launch in November of 2020 and will be the proving grounds for the same type of missions that occur with a crew. The mission parameters see the Orion spacecraft spending three weeks in space, including six days in a distant retrograde orbit around the Moon.

A distant, retrograde orbit is a highly stable orbit trajectory that has been studied for decades but has never been utilized on an actual spaceflight.

The Artemis program itself is very exciting in the size and scope of the project, as NASA looks to partner with U.S. commercial spaceflight companies including Blue Origin and SpaceX, as well as the European Space Agency, the Japanese Space Exploration Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency. The goal is simple: to put the first woman and the next man on the Moon by 2024. Landing at the lunar south pole with the idea of setting up a lunar base – something that has never been done before.

The program will use the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle to carry a crew of four astronauts into space. It will also be developing the lunar Gateway space station, which will serve as a solar-powered communications hub, science laboratory, habitation module and holding area for landers and rovers.

The Gateway Station will assemble components around the Moon in 2022, with a projected end date of 2028. The crew will be able to live on the station and ferry to and from the surface of the Moon, by 2024.

The Artemis program has also unveiled new spacesuits with new technology and new functionality. The XEMU for extravehicular activity and the OCSS for spacecraft flight.

A NASA image that says "Explore Moon to Mars" with an image of the moon in the background

New crewed spacecraft and spacesuits are not just coming from NASA, though. SpaceX has unveiled its plans for a technologically advanced spacesuit, but less information is available on this at this moment in time.

SpaceX and Boeing have developed new spacecraft to take astronauts to the stars. The crew Dragon from SpaceX and the CST100 from Boeing, both are tested and will start testing crewed launches within the next few years.

The SpaceX Starship is also being designed to bring cargo, as well as passengers to space, as a new reusable space vehicle. This prototype along with a smaller Starhopper could potentially be utilized for Earth to Moon transport, even Mars colonization, and space tourism.

Space tourism is actually about to become a really big deal and soon anyone healthy enough and with enough money to foot the bill will be able to take a trip to space. There have been seven space tourists who have flown on the Souyez spacecraft to the International Space Station.

The first-ever space tourist was Dennis Tito. The American engineer spent eight days on the ISS and paid a reported twenty million dollars to do it.

There has been a lot of criticism of non-astronauts flying to and living on the space station, with good cause, as the people trained to be there do have multiple jobs to do and it isn’t a “floating hotel.”

The idea of suborbital space tourism, therefore, is more widely accepted and comes with a much cheaper price tag.

Richard Branson’s company, Virgin Galactic, aims to be the first to offer regular, suborbital spaceflights about its Spaceship 2 spacecraft program. 

On December 13, 2018, the VSS Unity made its first flight to space – proving its capability of the spacecraft and the program, the idea of space tourism begins to take a much more final form.

A diagram of the concept of Breakthrough Starshot, which shows a StarChip spacecraft

Breakthrough Starshot (rendering pictured above) is a researching and engineering project by the Breakthrough Initiatives to develop a proof of concept fleet of light sail spacecraft named StarChip. These light sail spacecraft will be capable of making the journey to the Alpha Centauri star system, 4.37 light-years away. This project was funded in 2016 by benchmark capitalist and physicist, Yuri Milner, Stephen Hawking, and Mark Zuckerberg. The project could cost in upwards of $5 to $10 billion dollars and the first craft could feasibly be launched by 2036.

Light sail technology, or solar sails, utilize propulsion from radiation pressure exerted by sunlight onto mirrors. While this seems like something out of science fiction, variations of this principle were used on the Mariner 10 mission, which flew by Mercury and Venus in the 1970s.

In theory, ships using this technology could supply bases across our solar system, but the Breakthrough Starshot aims to travel much, much farther. The idea is to launch a mothership containing 1000 tiny spacecraft, each weighing only a few grams and being a few centimeters in size. Then, a focus ground base array of lasers would launch the tiny spacecraft at a speed of about 15-20% that the speed of light, reaching Alpha Centauri in thirty years. Equipped with cameras and other equipment, they could beam back the first images and data up close to another solar system.

Looking towards Mars, NASA plans to send the Mars 2020 Rover to investigate the surface geological processes and the assessment of the planet’s past habitability – was there really ever a form of life on Mars?

The European Space Agency is sending the Roslyn Franklin rover, which will include multiple science applications, as well as look at the current and past habitability of Mars.

Even China, India and the United Arab Emirates are all sending rovers as well to the Red Planet between 2020 and 2022 — all with the goal of collecting more data on the geological makeup of the planet.

All this science sent to Mars is in hopes of humanity itself stepping foot on the planet within possibly fifteen years. The data from these rovers will be instrumental in creating bases on the Martian surface, as well as tools that humanity can use, once they get there.

A rendering of the Jupiter Icy Moons explorer, which shows a spacecraft hovering above Jupiter

The Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, or JUICE, is an interplanetary spacecraft in development by the European Space Agency (see rendering above). This mission is being developed to visit the Jovian system, focused on studying three of Jupiter’s Galilean Moons – Ganymede, Callisto, and Europa. All of these moons are thought to have significant forms of bodies of water beneath their surfaces, making them potentially habitable environments. JUICE is set for launch in June of 2022 and would reach Jupiter in October of 2029.

In 2033, the spacecraft should enter orbit around Ganymede for its close up science mission and become the first spacecraft to orbit a moon, other than the Moon of Earth.

The Origins Spectral Interpretations Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-Rex, is a NASA asteroid study and sample return mission. The mission's main goal is to obtain a sample of at least 60 grams from Bennu, a carbonaceous near-Earth asteroid, and return the sample to Earth for detailed analysis. The materials returned is expected to enable scientists to learn more about the formation and evolution of our solar system, its initial stages of planet formation, and the source of organic compounds that led to the formation of life here on Earth.

In December of 2018, the satellite reached the proximity of the asteroid and it will continue to analyze the surface and perform closer and closer passes until March of 2021, gaining its samples and returning to Earth until September of 2023.

Lucy, part of the NASA Discovery program, is scheduled to launch in October 2021 to explore six Trojan asteroids in a main-belt asteroid. The two swarms of Trojan asteroids, ahead of and behind Jupiter, are thought to be dark bodies made up of the same material as the outer planets that were pulled into orbit near Jupiter. Lucy will be the first mission to study the Trojans and scientists hope that the study from this mission will revolutionize our knowledge of the formation of our solar system. These asteroids are ancient fossils of planet formation, which could hold clues to life on Earth.

As of July 2019, the Voyager-1 spacecraft is 13.6 billion miles from Earth – the most distant man-made object. To put this into perspective, that is about 19.5 light-hours away from Earth. The nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is 4.24 light years away. We need to figure out more, bigger and better sustainable methods of propulsion if we want to become an interplanetary or even inter galaxy species.

Currently, we can make a craft that can reach a top speed of 157,000 miles per hour, in space. That craft could reach Proxima Centauri in about 18,000 Earth years. Yikes.

Our current propulsion ideas are limited to chemical plasma propellants, liquid hydrogen and oxidizers like the engines of the space shuttle, nuclear power and even ideas for nanoparticle propellants. The most science-fiction type of idea right now is the Alcubierre Drive, which is based on Einstein’s field equations and general relativity, and would allow for faster than lightspeed travel by contracting space in front of the craft and expanding it behind it — much like a wormhole is perceived to function. Even though the math checks out, this would require massive amounts of energy in the realm of the size of the planet Jupiter.

Our own physiology would be a factor, with prolonged time in space already showing signs of bone deterioration, a loss in muscle strength and vision problems. The effects of prolonged exposure to solar radiation without the Earth’s magnetic field, could prove detrimental.

Food could be scarce and very hard to have enough stored for prolonged spaceflight.

We are currently working on figuring all of these problems out with new ways to recycle, reuse and produce food in space – making storage more efficient.

On the ISS, astronauts have been developing ways to produce water through chemical reactions and fuel cells and growing food in microgravity.

As for the limitations on our bodies, science is looking at artificial intelligence and robotic spacecraft to help aid the humans who will be living and working in space and even replace humanity on long-duration missions when they can.

Take a glimpse into Humanity in Space: The Future of Space Exploration as we conclude the mission of this series of Fueled by Death Cast. Thank you for taking this journey into space with us!

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