4) A trip to Jupiter’s moons
One of the four Galilean satellites of Jupiter, Europa is a treasure trove of unique physical characteristics, despite being located far away from the sun. Discovered back in 1610, the Jovian moon is around 4.5 billion years old, and is sixth from Jupiter in terms of distance. an abundance oxygen, subsurface running water and a bunch of other fascinating properties makes it one of the most likely places in the solar system for extraterrestrial life. Last year, for instance, we talked about a research, funded by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, that envisions the use of innovative robotic eels to explore the icy oceans of Europa. As part of the project, scientists from Cornell University are developing a highly-advanced eel-like robot that could not only swim the frosty waters of the Jovian moon, but also generate electricity from magnetic fields.
Space missions to Europa could see the use of Valkyrie, a robot that NASA is currently developing to survey the conditions prevailing on the moon. A humanoid cryobot, Valkyrie is capable of drilling its way through the satellite’s icy crust to reach the subsurface oceans. According to the designers, a miniature version of the contraption can melt ice up to 8 km (around 5 miles) in thickness. While it is possible these projects might never see the light of day, the European Space Agency is working on something that is equally ambitious, but slightly more achievable. The Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE) is a futuristic solar-powered spacecraft that is being built to fly by the Jovian system, with special focus on three of the Galilean moons: Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Announced in May of 2012, the unmanned probe is scheduled to launch sometime in 2022. If everything goes according to plan, it will enter Ganymede’s orbit by 2030.
Talks are currently underway for a Ganymede lander, called Laplace-P, which will work alongside the JUICE probe. To be built by the Russian Space Institute, Laplace-P will be the first of its kind to make a landing on the Jovian system. Unlike Juno, which recently entered Jupiter’s orbit, JUICE will not survey the planet, instead visiting three of its major moons.
5) A submarine sailing in Titan’s oceans
Another moon of special interest in astronomy is Titan. Bigger in size than Mercury, Titan is the largest of Saturn’s 60 known moons and is home to rivers, lakes and even oceans of methane, which interestingly also falls from the sky as rain. Although somewhat similar to Earth’s water cycle, the so-called methane cycle on Titan takes place at a much lower temperature of around 94 K (approx. -179.2°C). What’s more, it has a surface atmospheric pressure that is quite comparable to that on our planet. Scientists believe that Titan and Earth are the only two places in the entire solar system, where periodic rainfall is known to erode the ground.
In a recent article, we talked about the possibility of finding non-water-based alien life forms in the moon’s unique environment. As part of the project, a team from Cornell University used special computer simulations to survey the surface conditions of Saturn’s largest moon. Upon studying the data collected by NASA’ s Cassini-Huygens mission, the researchers concluded that the present of large amounts of hydrogen cyanide could point to prebiotic conditions that could in turn support life, even in Titan’s super-cold environment.
The Time Mare Explorer (TiME) is arguably one of the most ambitious space missions ever undertaken. Originally announced by NASA in 2009, the mission intends to dispatch submarine-like lander into the extraterrestrial oceans of the distant natural satellite. Although still in the early stages of development, the probe is slated for launch not before 2040, when Earth rises over the horizon of the moon’s largest lake, Kraken Mare. The objective of the project, according to the researchers, is to measure and collect samples of the organic compounds present on the satellite’s surface. Speaking about the ambitious initiative, Ralph Lorenz, a planetary scientist at John Hopkins University, said:
The virtue of this study is that you just need to say those words—’Titan submarine’—and everyone kind of gets that it’s out there, it’s interesting, and there’s a lot of exciting potential… Titan can inform us on the chemical processes that lead to life (as we know it, based on liquid water). There is also the possibility, albeit a remote one, of alternate chemical systems executing the functions of life—metabolism, information storage and replication, etc.—in a completely different solvent: liquid methane.
6) Space missions to another star
Interstellar travel might be firmly belong to the realm of science fictions. For now, at least. But that hasn’t stopped NASA or the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Dubbed as the 100 Year Starship (100YSS), the fascinating joint mission, which was announced back in October, envisions a not-so-distant future where humans could fly from star to another. Alpha Centauri, here we come!
However, it is important to note that the project’s primary goal is not to actually build a spacecraft capable of interstellar travel. Instead, it is meant to encourage the development of innovative technologies as well as a sound business plan, which could in turn take us closer to such a feat within the next century. In 2012, Mae Jemison, an ex-NASA astronaut and the head of the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, was awarded over $500,000 by DARPA for further research.
One of the main focuses of the initiative is the development of a propulsion system that could transport a spacecraft from one solar system to another. To that end, the team is working on something called antimatter propulsion technology that, as its name suggests, would use antimatter as the power source to a rocket. Speaking about the mission, Mae Jemison said at a conference in 2012:
Yes, it can be done. Our current technology arc is sufficient.
In April of this year, physicist Stephen Hawking and Russian businessman Yuri Milner joined hands as part of the Breakthrough Starshot mission, whose aim is to build a fleet of chip-sized robotic probes that could reach new stars and solar systems. Although currently at its infancy, the project will rely on the use of powerful lasers to launch these miniature crafts into space, which will then embark on a 20-year-journey to the Alpha Centauri star system. An initial funding of around $100 million has already been awarded to the organization, with scientists estimating the final interstellar mission to cost somewhere between $5 to $10 billion.