By Gaurav Sharma
Dazzling images of icy plains, enigmatic clusters of mounds, and a heart shaped region holding a huge concentration of carbon monoxide set hearts roaring as NASA’s New Horizons Mission flew past the eccentric dwarf planet Pluto.
As more and more data keeps pouring in over the next 16 months, the inquisitive human eye can hope to discover the mysterious aura of the frozen planet along with the mythical nature of its “disappearing atmosphere”.
However, NASA’s epic Pluto mission is just one of the many eclectic assortments of space exploration that the scientific arena has lined up for the curious space observers in its wide gamut of astronomical odysseys.
The rapid rise of technology in the post-modern world has further led to a surge in space exploration missions. Innovative private spaceflight companies such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Orbital Sciences, Blue Origin and Bigelow Aerospace are fueling the revolutionary transformation in space technology.
Here is telescopic peek of the future foray into dark space exploration:
People had been viewing Mars–as a red dot brimming with canals and frost–for eternity. After the relay of zoomed-in images by NASA’s Mariner 4 in 1965, the world was caught in rapt attention.
Thought to have been home to life like its cousin Earth, Mars is set for a rediscovery, this time through the European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission. The mission is scheduled for next year and will sample the Martian atmosphere. However, the center of attraction will be the ExoMars Rover which will land on the Red Planet in 2018.
The ExoMars rover will be superior to the Curiosity rover, which was only able to drill two meters below the surface to search for organic matter. A riverbed which was thought to have been a watery landscape holding sediments of life will likely be the landing site of the rover.
Designed with the aim of taking humans deeper into space than ever before, NASA’s Orion spacecraft will begin its first manned flight in 2021. The spacecraft is bigger and far more advanced than Apollo, the aircraft credited with landing humans on the Moon for the first time in history.
The spacecraft might visit asteroids to collect samples in the mid 2020s, with the ultimate aim of landing on Mars during the mid 2030s.
However, the conundrum of the rapid deterioration of human body in space will remain a contentious issue. In space, the solar radiation is high and low gravity is known to cause degradation of bone and muscle strength.
Moving beyond the red planet to the largest planet Jupiter, the European Space Agency’s Juice mission will be initiated in 2022 with an eye to explore the icy Jovian moons.
The spacecraft will make a string of flybys of Callisto, Europa and Ganymede (the largest moon in the solar system). All three moons are likely places for life in the solar system to thrive as the thick ice crusts covering their surfaces are believed to hold liquid oceans of water.
Using radial imaging, the spacecraft will beam back images of the fractured lunar surfaces, closely resembling Antarctica’s subglacial lakes.
James Webb Telescope
In April this year, the Hubble space telescope–one of the largest and most versatile telescopes–celebrated its silver jubilee. In 2018, the James Webb Telescope will become its natural successor, providing a much more encompassing visual experience for astronomers.
Featuring a 6.5 meter mirror and a tennis court-size sunshield, the telescope will be the largest one to be launched in low Earth orbit.
The Webb telescope will focus on infrared, thereby allowing the viewers to gaze back at the primeval stars, the stars and galaxies existing before the Big Bang. This will bring a sea change in the way astronomers have been viewing the planets until now. Direct observations of atmosphere and whether it contains air, water, methane, etc. will become a reality.
Set to be launched in 2018, the European Space Agency’s sun observing satellite will travel closer to the sun than any other spacecraft yet flown, reaching jaw dropping temperatures of about 600C.
The satellite will circle into orbit about 21 million miles surface of Mercury. Through an onboard camera designed to showcase images spanning just 110 miles (the Sun’s visible disc is about 800,000 miles wide!), the orbiter will provide close-up views of the polar regions of the Sun, an impossible view from the Earth.
Apart from revealing the Sun’s strange landscape, swirling gases, and violent flares in unprecedented detail, the rare images will help uncover the mystery of its powerful magnetic field and the riddle of what happens when the Sun’s magnetic field flips 180 degrees, a phenomenon which occurred in 2013.
With space exploration gearing up for intense activity with an aim to break old barriers and reach newer frontiers, space aficionados and sky gazers alike can expect a visual orgasmic treat. After all, what is exploration if not an exciting, thrilling adventure?