It’s safe to say that the last two years have spoiled us in terms of space missions. Rosetta is still out there after its amazing achievement in 2014, when it first managed to orbit (and send a probe on the surface of) a comet; 2015 has been even more rewarding in terms of discoveries, some of them (New Horizons, Dawn) enriching dramatically the knowledge of our Solar System. Which kind of wonders can we reasonably expect in 2016?
“The challenges facing our space program are different, and our imperatives for this program are different, than in decades past. We’re no longer racing against an adversary. We’re no longer competing to achieve a singular goal like reaching the Moon. In fact, what was once a global competition has long since become a global collaboration. But while the measure of our achievements has changed a great deal over the past 50 years, what we do — or fail to do — in seeking new frontiers is no less consequential for our future in space and here on Earth.”
We can assume as a fact that space exploration as a whole is going to keep pace – if anything, for the encouraging speech Obama delivered during his last State of the Union Address. To go more into details, there are a few missions we want to keep an eye on, starting with SpaceX and Blue Origin’s race for a reusable rocket, which would cut the cost of space missions quite dramatically.
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Our efforts on Mars will continue. In 2015 we found out there’s liquid water on the Martian surface, even though we can’t go anywhere near to avoid contamination – for the moment, at least. This year, however, we’ll start to seriously consider how to do it without risk. In the meantime, the European Space Agency (ESA) is scheduled for its March 14, 2016 launch of the ExoMars mission (TGO) which, upon arrival 7 months later, will encircle Mars, hunting for sources of methane.
Photo Credit: Kevin Gill/FlickrCC
June will see our return to Jupiter. NASA’s Juno spacecraft will enter the gas giant’s orbit on July 4, nearly five years after its launch. Juno, a solar-powered probe, will map out Jupiter’s magnetic and gravitational fields and promises more discoveries.
NASA will send another spacecraft in 2016. On Sept. 3, it will launch the OSIRIS-REx (Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer) mission. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will reach the asteroid Bennu, in the Asteroid Belt, in 2018, retrieving about 2.1 ounces (60 grams) of the asteroid’s material and bring it to Earth somewhen in 2023. Will this be a first in asteroid mining, whose law was recently signed in the U.S.? We’ll see.
Photo Credit: Hubble Heritage/FlickrCC
Finally, 2016 will witness the end of the historical Cassini mission, which has given us 12 years of awesome imagery of Saturn and its moon system, rings included. In what is aptly called “Gran Finale,” in its final mission Cassini will perform 22 breathtaking loops passing through the gap between Saturn and its innermost ring (details here). Too bad we won’t be on board for a breath-taking view. Next time, Saturn!