March 3, 2024

There’s plenty to explore in the solar system after Pluto

It’s reasonable to ask if anything can be more exciting than flying past Pluto. The discovery of alien life may be the only thing that could come close. We know the basics of our solar systems, such as how rings, moons, and planets work together in planetary systems and what makes up their atmospheres. Also, we have theories on how the solar system was created and evolved. We’re still far from finished exploring and testing our solar system. Over the next decade, several missions will provide new insights into our corner of the universe.

What’s next?

New Horizons is expected to continue making discoveries over the next year as it transmits its measurements. However, the next move will be a flyby of another Kuiper Belt beyond Pluto’s orbit. The body 2014MU69, which was discovered only last month, is the preferred candidate. If the approval is granted this year, we could have a flyby of this object in 2019. This would allow us to learn more about it and understand how and what happened at the edge of our solar systems.

In July 2016, NASA’s Juno Mission will orbit Jupiter. This is the first time since 2003 that a spacecraft has done so. Juno will examine the composition of Jupiter’s interior to learn more about how the solar system was formed. It will also investigate Jupiter’s aurora as well as how the planet is connected to its immense magnetosphere – the largest physical structure of the solar system.

Move over Curiosity; here comes ExoMars. ESA

The ExoMars Mission of Europe aims to find signs of life on Mars by using two spacecraft. The Trace Gas Orbiter will be launched in 2016 and study volatile gases like water, methane, and ozone that could indicate life on Mars. The Trace Gas Orbiter will also serve as a communications relay for , a rover which will be launched in 2018 and will drill two meters below the surface of Mars in search of biosignatures.

There’s more. There’s more. In 2018, Japan’s Hayabusa2 will land on one of the Apollo asteroids crossing the Earth’s orbit. After a year’s survey, the spacecraft will return samples back to Earth in 2020.

Ice has a long way to travel. ESA/AOES

We have something to look forward to. The European Space Agency will launch the Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer mission in 2022 on a 10 year journey towards Ganymede. This is the largest Moon of the Solar System. It will be the very first time that a satellite has been placed in orbit around a moon. JUICE is primarily aimed at determining whether moons of giant worlds are viable places for life. In the late 2020s/early 30s, NASA’s Europa Clipper mission will explore Europa, another of Jupiter’s moons.

Despite all the planned missions, other parts of our solar system are still worth exploring. Scientists aren’t content with just making measurements, but also want to bring back samples from the moon, Mars, and Phobos. The so-called “sample return missions” still require significant technology development to push our capabilities further. They are also a step towards human space exploration, as robotic exploration allows for testing technology and reconnaissance of hostile environments in distant places before sending humans.

There is no such thing as a typical comet, which continues to attract the attention of space scientists. Main Belt Comets, for example are a newly discovered class of comets that reside in the belt of asteroid and may hold the key to understanding Earth’s source of water. The recent detection of volcanic activity on Venus has also tempted atmospheric scientists and geoscientists to take another look at Earth’s evil twin.

The outer reaches. NASA/JPL

The outer solar system, beyond Saturn, is still largely unexplored. Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto have all only been visited by New Horizons in Pluto. This was done in 1986 and 1989. These ice-giant planets are a different class from the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn. Since the beginning of the decade, scientists have argued for a return back to the ice giants. Triton is the largest moon of Neptune and is particularly interesting because it’s suspected to be an object from the Kuiper Belt that was pulled into orbit in a manner similar to Pluto’s origins. Triton, the largest moon of Neptune, is of particular interest because it’s suspected to be a Kuiper Belt object that has been pulled into orbit in a similar way as Pluto.

What’s the Point?

Humanity is a curious species. We are always interested in learning more about our origins. It’s difficult to answer many of the big science questions, such as “How did our Solar System develop?” or “Is there life beyond Earth?” without looking into the universe. Philae wanted to understand the reason why some biological molecules have a certain shape.

The cost of these answers is also a factor. New Horizons cost about US$700m, which is around PS450m. However, this works out to only US$2 per US citizen. This money wasn’t only launched into space. Money for space exploration is used to support industries we depend on, such as global communication, weather observation, and navigation. These same scientists educate the next generation, who will then ask the same big questions about the universe and look for answers.

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