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Space By Will Lewis -

Upcoming Space Missions and Launches that Blow Our Minds
[Image via Global Times]

China’s Chang’e-6 and The Dark Side of the Moon

China is on the verge of launching a groundbreaking space mission that promises to redefine lunar exploration. Set to take off in May 2024, the Chang’e-6 mission represents a significant leap forward in the country’s space endeavors. Building on the success of the 2020 Chang’e-5 mission, which brought back lunar samples from the near side of the Moon, Chang’e-6 aims to make history by collecting samples from the far side. The target is the South Pole-Aitken basin, a massive ancient impact basin on the lunar far side that holds the key to unraveling mysteries about the Moon’s geological history. Landing in the southern portion of the Apollo crater within the SPA basin, the mission seeks to obtain diverse samples, potentially offering insights into the unique geological characteristics and the cessation of volcanic activity on the lunar far side.

Executing this ambitious mission requires a meticulously planned sequence of events. Launched from the coastal Wenchang spaceport, the four-part Chang’e-6 spacecraft will enter lunar orbit, land, and employ scooping and drilling techniques to collect samples. An ascent vehicle will then transport the samples into lunar orbit with the waiting service module, initiating a challenging 53-day odyssey. Beyond its scientific goals, Chang’e-6 carries additional payloads, including instruments from France and Sweden to detect lunar outgassing and negative ions. The collected lunar samples will not only contribute to Chinese scientific research but also be made available for international cooperation, fostering a collaborative exploration of the Moon’s mysteries. As we anticipate this historic mission, there is growing speculation about the potential for an extended mission for the Chang’e-6 service module, reflecting the unexpected achievements and ambitions that have become synonymous with China’s lunar exploration efforts. The exploration of the lunar far side is poised to provide unprecedented insights into the early history and evolution of the Moon, Earth, and the broader Solar System.

Upcoming Space Missions and Launches that Blow Our Minds
[Image via The Planetary Society]

MMX Martian Moon Mission

The Red Planet is home to two peculiar moons, Phobos and Deimos, whose origins and compositions remain elusive. Japan’s upcoming Martian Moons eXploration (MMX) spacecraft mission aims to unravel these cosmic enigmas by drilling into Phobos and bringing back invaluable samples. Scheduled for launch in 2024 the MMX mission is a collaborative effort between Japan, Europe, and the United States. The spacecraft is equipped with nearly a dozen scientific instruments, including two sampling mechanisms – the Corer Sampler and Pneumatic Sampler – designed to collect material from Phobos. Additionally, a German-French rover will be deployed to explore Phobos’ surface autonomously, assisting in selecting specimens for the spacecraft to retrieve.

Phobos, the larger of the two Martian moons, orbits the Red Planet three times a day in a microgravity environment. The MMX spacecraft faces the challenge of landing on a surface whose properties are still unknown – whether it’s hard enough to land on or soft and fluffy remains uncertain. The mission’s ambitious goal is to answer the fundamental question of whether Phobos and Deimos are captured asteroids or remnants of a massive impact on Mars, shedding light on the solar system’s origin and evolution. The MMX mission incorporates cutting-edge technology, such as the GAmma-rays and NEutrons (MEGANE) spectrometer, to analyze Phobos’ elemental composition. Scientists like Terik Daly from Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory anticipate that the mission’s success will not only provide insights into the Martian moons but also contribute to our understanding of the broader solar system. With a return to Earth planned for 2029, the MMX mission represents a significant leap forward in planetary science, building on the success of Japan’s previous Hayabusa and Hayabusa2 missions to near-Earth asteroids.

Upcoming Space Missions and Launches that Blow Our Minds
[Image via NASA Science]

Lucy Mission Set For Jupiter Trojan Asteroids

NASA’s Lucy mission is gearing up for a groundbreaking exploration of the never-before-explored Jupiter Trojan asteroids after its successful rendezvous with an asteroid in 2023. In 2024, Lucy will undergo a series of maneuvers to transition from its current orbit skimming the inner-edge of the asteroid belt to a new orbit beyond Jupiter. This involves deep space maneuvers and an Earth gravity assist, starting with the spacecraft’s main engines operating for the first time in space on January 31. This marks a crucial step in propelling Lucy towards its second milestone of the year – a second Earth gravity assist in December 2024. The spacecraft will fly within 230 miles of Earth, utilizing the gravitational slingshot effect to propel it through the main asteroid belt and towards its encounter with the Jupiter Trojan asteroids in 2027.

During Lucy’s first asteroid encounter in 2023, the spacecraft discovered a satellite, officially named “Selam,” orbiting the asteroid Dinkinesh. The International Astronomical Union approved the name, meaning “peace” in Amharic, the Ethiopian language. This satellite, a contact-binary and the first of its kind observed, offers unique insights. Data from this encounter is currently being processed, providing valuable information for the upcoming mission objectives. Lucy’s science instruments, including the L’Ralph camera and the Lucy Thermal Emissions Spectrometer, collected data on the composition and surface properties of Dinkinesh and Selam. This information will aid scientists in understanding the composition of these asteroids and how they relate to other celestial bodies. With plans to visit a total of 10 asteroids over the next decade, Lucy’s upcoming Earth gravity assist in December 2024 is a crucial step before encountering asteroid Donaldjohanson in April 2025 and reaching the primary targets, the Jupiter Trojan asteroids, in 2027. The successful performance during its first asteroid encounter and the data collected provide a solid foundation for the mission’s ambitious exploration ahead.

Upcoming Space Missions and Launches that Blow Our Minds
[Image via Caltech]

NASA’s Lunar Trailblazer

Scheduled to launch in 2024 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, Trailblazer aims to map the form, abundance, and distribution of water on the Moon. Equipped with infrared spectrometry, it will detect water and hydroxyl molecules by analyzing how the Moon’s surface reflects and absorbs infrared light. With its better resolution, Trailblazer can distinguish between different forms of water, including ice, liquid, and vapor. The spacecraft’s comprehensive dataset will be crucial for interpreting future studies and missions, such as NASA’s VIPER rover, which launches in 2024 to study water ice in permanently shadowed regions. Commissioned by NASA in 2019 under the SIMPLEx program, Trailblazer exemplifies efficient exploration on a budget. This satellite is tailor-made to advance our understanding of lunar water, a critical aspect of lunar exploration and science. With its cost-effective approach, Trailblazer showcases how impactful planetary science missions can be conducted without breaking the bank.

NASA’s Artemis campaign aims to surpass the achievements of the Apollo missions, planning to land humans on the Moon for a more extended stay. A significant shift in lunar exploration between Apollo and Artemis lies in the discovery of lunar water. While earlier studies suggested the Moon was exceptionally dry, advancements in technology revealed water in lunar volcanic glasses and minerals. India’s Chandrayaan-1 mission further confirmed the presence of substantial amounts of water across the Moon. This unexpected revelation sparked global interest in exploring the Moon not only for scientific purposes but also for potential resource utilization. Scientists are now focused on understanding how water molecules are produced on the Moon and transported to the poles, where they can be sequestered in permanently shadowed regions for billions of years. The Artemis program, which envisions human habitation on the Moon using local resources like water, necessitates a thorough understanding of its nature and accessibility. To achieve this, a series of NASA-funded robotic missions over the next five years will conduct specific measurements.

Upcoming Space Missions and Launches that Blow Our Minds
[Image via NASA]

NASA’s SpaceX Crew-8

The astronauts assigned to NASA’s SpaceX Crew-8 mission recently undertook crucial preparations at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This included a detailed rehearsal of launch day activities and an up-close examination of the spacecraft set to transport them to the International Space Station (ISS). As part of the Crew Equipment Interface Test, the crew, consisting of NASA astronauts Matthew Dominick, Michael Barratt, and Jeanette Epps, alongside Roscosmos cosmonaut Alexander Grebenkin, donned their flight suits and conducted essential checks within SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. During this test, the crew not only familiarized themselves with the spacecraft’s interior but also performed leak checks and communication verifications. Additionally, they listened to the sounds generated by the Dragon’s fans and pumps, anticipating the auditory experience during their upcoming spaceflight.

The Dragon spacecraft, named Endeavour, has previously supported several significant missions, including NASA’s Demo-2, Crew-2, and Crew-6, as well as Axiom Space’s Axiom Mission 1. Beyond spacecraft preparations, the Crew-8 astronauts engaged in a comprehensive familiarization tour of Kennedy’s Launch Complex 39A. They completed emergency training and ascended the launch pad’s tower via elevator, enjoying a panoramic view of the Florida spaceport. The Crew-8 mission is scheduled for launch no earlier than mid-February 2024, utilizing SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. This mission, part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, signifies the ninth human spaceflight mission facilitated by a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft and the eighth crew rotation mission to the ISS since 2020.

Upcoming Space Missions and Launches that Blow Our Minds
[Image via YouTube]

Blue Origin’s New Glenn

Blue Origin, the space company founded by Jeff Bezos, appears to be making significant progress towards launching its long-anticipated New Glenn rocket within the next 12 months. The company is currently in the process of assembling the massive rocket at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. While there is a history of delays, Blue Origin has been consistent in targeting a 2024 launch for New Glenn, and recent signs, including statements from a senior Blue Origin official, suggest real progress is being made. The New Glenn rocket is a two-stage behemoth standing over 320 feet tall with the capacity to carry nearly 100,000 pounds of payload into low-Earth orbit. NASA has expressed its intention to launch one of its robotic Mars missions, named ESCAPADE, on the inaugural flight of New Glenn. The mission is slated for August 2024, but alternative launch trajectories are under consideration.

Blue Origin’s vice president, Lars Hoffman, outlined the company’s readiness and plans to conduct engine testing in the coming months, emphasizing their commitment to launching New Glenn next year. Despite a history of delays and the Berger’s Law guideline suggesting potential postponements, Blue Origin seems determined to meet its 2024 launch schedule for New Glenn. The company’s efforts include ongoing construction at the launch pad, visible progress in the manufacturing plant, and plans for cryogenic propellant loading tests in Florida. With Blue Origin’s focus on reusability, including the recovery of boosters on offshore platforms, the upcoming New Glenn launch signifies a critical milestone in Jeff Bezos’s broader space ambitions.

Upcoming Space Missions and Launches that Blow Our Minds
[Image via Axiom Space]

Axiom Mission 4

NASA and Axiom Space have recently sealed an agreement for the upcoming fourth private astronaut mission to the International Space Station (ISS), set to launch no earlier than August 2024 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This collaboration marks a significant step in NASA’s strategy to transition low Earth orbit activities from government-sponsored to a multi-customer model, where NASA is one of many clients. The move aims to sustain a continuous U.S. presence in low Earth orbit and eventually shift beyond the ISS operations. Dubbed Axiom Mission 4 (Ax-4), the mission is expected to last up to 14 days docked to the ISS, contingent on overall spacecraft traffic and other planning considerations. The private astronauts, part of Ax-4, will coordinate their in-orbit activities with station crew members and ground-based flight controllers.

Axiom Space, the orchestrator of these private missions, views each mission as a building block towards establishing the world’s first commercial space station, Axiom Station, to succeed ISS operations in low Earth orbit. These endeavors also play a pivotal role in expanding global access to space and developing the expertise required for living and working in microgravity. The Ax-4 crew members, yet to be confirmed, will undergo comprehensive training with NASA, international partners, and SpaceX, the chosen launch provider. Axiom Space has engaged SpaceX not only for transportation to and from the ISS but also for familiarizing private astronauts with Dragon spacecraft systems, procedures, and emergency protocols. Axiom Space is acquiring NASA services through both a mission-specific order and a reimbursable Space Act Agreement, emphasizing the collaborative effort and shared responsibilities in advancing commercial space activities.

Upcoming Space Missions and Launches that Blow Our Minds
[Image via Star Walk]

SpaceX Starlink Launches

In January 2024, SpaceX is gearing up for yet another awe-inspiring Starlink launch, with Starlink Group 6-38 scheduled for January 28th at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The exact date and time might change, so people hoping to catch a glimpse of the satellites during launch or in the sky keep an eye on updates. Recent launches, such as Starlink Group 7-11 on January 23rd from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, and Starlink Group 6-37 on January 14th from Cape Canaveral, Florida, have all been successful, contributing to the growing constellation of over 5,250 Starlink satellites in low Earth orbit. As SpaceX prepares for its sixth Starlink launch in January 2024, the company’s vision for a global internet communication satellite constellation continues to unfold, raising both admiration and apprehension within the scientific community.

Following each Starlink launch, spectators often witness a peculiar train of lights in the night sky. These lights are the Starlink satellites transitioning to a higher orbit. You can track their path over your location using the Find Starlink website. Despite the excitement surrounding these launches, concerns have arisen in the astronomical community. With SpaceX planning to deploy possibly up to 30,000 satellites, astronomers worry about the bright Starlinks interfering with professional astronomical observations, impacting our understanding of the cosmos. Although SpaceX has made efforts to address these concerns, the issue remains a point of contention.

Where Do We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

Europa Clipper Mission: https://europa.nasa.gov/mission/about/

Artemis II Flight Test: https://www.nasa.gov/missions/artemis/nasas-first-flight-with-crew-important-step-on-long-term-return-to-the-moon-missions-to-mars/

Moon Robot VIPER: https://www.nasa.gov/solar-system/nasa-rover-to-search-for-water-other-resources-on-moon/

HERA Asteroid Mission: https://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/nmc/spacecraft/display.action?id=HERA

ESCAPADE Mars Mission: https://advancedspace.com/technology-enabling-2024-escapade-mission-to-mars/#:~

Peregrine Mission One Lunar Delivery: https://www.nasa.gov/news-release/nasa-science-astrobotic-peregrine-mission-one-concludes/

India’s Aditya-L1 Sun Monitoring: https://www.reuters.com/science/india-isros-aditya-l1-solar-mission-reaches-destination-2024-01-06/

Proba-3 First Tandem Satellites: https://www.esa.int/Enabling_Support/Space_Engineering_Technology/Proba_Missions/Proba-3_Mission3

Polaris Dawn Mission: https://polarisprogram.com/dawn/

Nova-C Private Moon Landing: https://www.space.com/moon-landing-intuitive-machines-private-mission-target-january-2024

Launch of NISAR Strengthens U.S.- India Space Diplomacy: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/nisar-mission-an-enabling-partnership-between-us-and-india-nasa-jpl-scientists/article67765872.ece

China’s Chang’e-6 and The Dark Side of the Moon: https://www.planetary.org/space-missions/change-6-collecting-the-first-lunar-farside-samples

MMX Martian Moon Mission: https://www.space.com/mars-moons-phobos-jaxa-mmx-mission

Lucy Mission Set For Jupiter Trojan Asteroids: https://blogs.nasa.gov/lucy/

NASA’s Lunar Trailblazer: https://www.planetary.org/space-missions/lunar-trailblazer

NASA’s SpaceX Crew-8: https://blogs.nasa.gov/commercialcrew/tag/falcon-9-rocket/

Blue Origin’s New Glenn: https://arstechnica.com/space/2023/12/blue-origin-sure-seems-confident-it-will-launch-new-glenn-in-2024/

Axiom Mission 4: https://www.nasa.gov/news-release/nasa-selects-axiom-space-for-another-private-space-mission-in-2024/

SpaceX Starlink Launches: https://earthsky.org/spaceflight/spacex-starlink-launches-january-2024/