To Boldly Go...

NASA’s Next Missions Will Blow Our Minds

Despite reduced funding, the agency is forging ahead after Juno’s successful entry into Jupiter’s orbit—searching for Earth-like exoplanets, planning a manned mission to Mars, and more.

The announcement of the NASA spacecraft Juno’s ascent to Jupiter has many wondering what’s coming next for the recently defunded government space agency.

Despite NASA administrator Charles Bolden’s insistence in 2011 that “American leadership in space [would] continue for at least the next half-century because we have laid the foundation for success—and failure is not an option,” Congress slashed the budget for the space agency by more than $250 million last year, threatening the future of astrophysical and climate research.

But efforts to explore the final frontier have continued. Hope for the future of space research was renewed Monday, when NASA announced Juno’s successful entry into Jupiter’s orbit. Executing a tricky maneuver to slip into the gas giant’s orbit after a five-year journey and 1.8 billion miles, Juno was met with applause from ground control and excitement on social media. “It’s official: I’m in orbit at #Jupiter,” @NASAJuno tweeted at 9:50 p.m. on July 4.

So what’s next for NASA?

As movies like Christopher Nolan’s 2014 Interstellar show, one of science fiction’s favorite proposed solutions to Earth’s future uninhabitability is finding a life-sustaining planet outside our solar system. The K2 Missions are a new string of planned space “campaigns” aimed at observing stars to find exoplanets and potential “Earth-like planets around Sun-like stars.”

As of June 20, the K2 have discovered the “youngest fully formed exoplanet ever detected.” Erik Petigura of the California Institute of Technology writes in Nature that the young exoplanet “will help us better understand how planets form,” as well as “the processes that led to the formation of Earth.” Further expeditions are already planned through November 2017, with the hopes of discovering more exoplanets.

On Oct. 8, 2015, NASA released the next steps in its plans for a manned mission to Mars. According to the official proposal, upcoming fieldwork and experimentation will focus on three major objectives: increasing capacity for long duration missions; validating capabilities required for astronauts to live in deep space; and, finally, enabling human missions to low-Mars orbit, Martian moons, or other locations in the vicinity of Mars. The ultimate goal, according to administrator Charles Bolden, is to send American astronauts to the surface of Mars, and NASA is “aligning all of [its] work in support of this goal.”

The spacecraft Orion has been designed as the exploration vehicle for the historic mission to the Red Planet. According to NASA, the ship “will launch on the most powerful rocket in the world and fly farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown. Orion will stay in space longer than any ship for astronauts has done without docking to a space station and return home faster and hotter than ever before.” Next steps toward Mars-bound spacecraft capable of sustaining human life include tests of NASA’s new heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), and Orion’s capacity for deep-space travel.

New Horizons, launched back in 2006, completed a flyby of Pluto nearly a year ago and is now moving on to explore new Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs), including 2014 MU69, a small KBO that orbits close to a billion miles beyond Pluto. The ongoing mission of New Horizons is to further understanding of “worlds at the edge of our solar system by making the first reconnaissance of the dwarf planet Pluto and by venturing deeper into the distant, mysterious Kuiper Belt—a relic of solar system formation.” New Horizons will help NASA scientists answer basic questions about KBOs, such as their interior makeup, geology, surface properties, and atmospheres, as well as solving mysteries of solar system formation and guiding further exploration of the icy bodies on the outskirts of our solar system.

The International Space Station’s mission will also continue. Expedition 48/49 will launch July 6, and tours have been planned through October of the coming year. The newest research efforts aboard the station have two key focal points: astronaut health and self-sufficiency of the ISS. NASA’s most recent Space to Ground Report, posted on July 1, highlighted efforts to 3-D print viable tools and ship parts in zero gravity. Recent “coupons” or samples manufactured on the ISS have allowed for tests of the composition of printed material when used in space, with researchers on the ground printing duplicate coupons to compare to those in space. The capacity to print parts on board not only would reduce the time needed to replace broken tools or ship components but also would eliminate the need to ship spare parts on spaceships, significantly reducing costs.

Another critical ongoing research initiative focuses on the health of astronauts while aboard the ISS and other spacecraft, which will prove essential for enabling longer duration trips, such as those to Mars. According to NASA senior researcher and microbiologist Kasthuri Venkateswaran, “the combination of microgravity and radiation can diminish the effectiveness of the immune system and make innocuous microorganisms potentially harmful.” By studying sealed capsules of fungi and bacteria collected aboard the ISS, Venkateswaran told NASA’s website he is hoping to understand how to protect astronauts from disease while aboard—preventing “microbial contamination of spacecrafts” from compromising the search “for life on other planets.”

A major focus of NASA over the past decade or so has been using data and models to solve global challenges, such as food security, freshwater availability, and natural disaster forecasting. One such effort is a recent partnership between NASA scientists and authorities in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, aimed at aiding in disaster preparedness. The collaboration supports “innovative efforts to better understand, anticipate, and monitor natural hazards, including drought, flooding, and landslides,” using NASA’s satellite systems and, it is hoped, will improve disaster response in and around the 2016 Olympic host city.

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Another major initiative is “green aviation,” whereby NASA aeronautics research will be used to improve airspace technology at U.S. airports. A new research lab recently opened at Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT) in North Carolina as “part of a five-year test project aimed to streamline the arrival and departure of aircraft and improve surface operations to increase safety and efficiency and reduce fuel use.”