The year 2023 was a remarkable one for space missions, with NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission bringing back a sample from an asteroid and India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission landing on the lunar south pole. But the excitement is not over yet, as 2024 promises to be another thrilling year for space exploration. Several new missions under NASA’s Artemis plan and Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative will target the moon, while other missions will explore the moons of Jupiter and Mars. Here are some of the highlights of the upcoming space missions in 2024.
Europa Clipper: Searching for signs of life on an icy moon
One of the most anticipated missions of 2024 is Europa Clipper, which will explore one of Jupiter’s largest moons, Europa. Europa is slightly smaller than Earth’s moon, but it has a surface made of ice. Beneath its icy shell, Europa is believed to have a saltwater ocean, which scientists estimate contains more than twice as much water as all the oceans on Earth combined. With Europa Clipper, scientists hope to investigate whether Europa’s ocean could be a suitable habitat for extraterrestrial life. The mission plans to do this by flying past Europa nearly 50 times to study the moon’s icy shell, its surface geology and its subsurface ocean. The mission will also look for active geysers spewing out from Europa. This mission will change the game for scientists who want to understand ocean worlds like Europa. The launch window for Europa Clipper opens on October 10, 2024, and lasts 21 days. The spacecraft will launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket and arrive at the Jupiter system in 2030.
Artemis II: Sending humans back to the moon
The Artemis program, named after Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology, is NASA’s plan to return humans to the moon. It will send humans to the moon for the first time since 1972, including the first woman and the first person of color. Artemis also includes plans for a longer-term, sustained presence in space that will prepare NASA for eventually sending people even farther – to Mars. Artemis II is the first crewed step in this plan, with four astronauts planned to be on board during the 10-day mission. The mission builds upon Artemis I, which sent an uncrewed capsule into orbit around the moon in late 2022. Artemis II will put the astronauts into orbit around the moon before returning them home. It is currently planned for launch as early as November 2024.
VIPER: Drilling for water on the moon
Another mission that will target the moon in 2024 is VIPER, which stands for Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover. VIPER is a mobile robot that will explore the south pole of the moon, where there is evidence of water ice in permanently shadowed regions. VIPER will use a drill to collect soil samples and analyze them for water and other resources. VIPER will also map the distribution and abundance of water on the lunar surface, which could be useful for future human missions. VIPER is part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative, which aims to deliver scientific and commercial payloads to the moon using private companies. VIPER is expected to launch in November 2024 and operate for 100 days on the moon.
MMX: Exploring the mysterious moons of Mars
The Martian Moons eXploration mission, or MMX, is a joint project between the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the French space agency CNES. MMX will explore the two small and irregular moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos, which are thought to be captured asteroids. MMX will orbit both moons and land on Phobos, where it will collect a sample and return it to Earth. MMX will also carry a small rover developed by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the French space agency CNES, which will explore the surface of Phobos. MMX will study the origin, evolution and composition of the Martian moons, as well as their potential as future human exploration destinations. MMX is scheduled to launch in September 2024 and arrive at Mars in 2025.
Hera: Defending Earth from asteroid threats
Hera is a mission by the European Space Agency (ESA) that will visit a binary asteroid system, consisting of a large asteroid called Didymos and a smaller one called Dimorphos. Hera will follow up on NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission, which will crash into Dimorphos in 2022 to change its orbit around Didymos. Hera will arrive at the asteroid system in 2027 and observe the effects of the impact, as well as measure the properties of both asteroids. Hera will also deploy two CubeSats, which are small satellites, to perform additional measurements and experiments. Hera is part of the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) project, which aims to test the feasibility and effectiveness of asteroid deflection techniques that could prevent a potential collision with Earth. Hera is planned to launch in October 2024.
Other missions to look forward to
Besides these major missions, there are also other space missions that will launch or continue in 2024. For example, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which launched in late 2021, will start its scientific operations in 2024, providing unprecedented views of the universe. China’s Tianwen-1 mission, which arrived at Mars in 2021, will continue to operate its orbiter and rover, which will conduct scientific investigations on the red planet. India’s Gaganyaan mission, which aims to send three astronauts to low Earth orbit, will conduct its first uncrewed test flight in 2024, paving the way for the first crewed flight in 2025. Russia’s Luna-25 mission, which will land on the south pole of the moon, will launch in 2024 after several delays. These and other missions will make 2024 a year to remember for space enthusiasts and scientists alike.