Having pretty thoroughly explored the Earth, humanity has since turned its attention to the stars. There are a myriad of missions already in the history books, and many more underway. We’re at a pivotal time in our exploration of space. With a bit of luck and science, we may soon be able to explore more freely and understand the nature of the universe — it’s a bright future. These are six of the most important upcoming missions that will get us there.

Mars 2020 rover

The Curiosity rover has been a huge success. After landing on mars in 2012, the rover has lasted much longer than the original design life, and has traveled farther on mars than any robot before it. The next step is the as-yet unnamed Mars 2020 rover. As the placeholder name implies, NASA wants to launch this mission in 2020. The rover will be based on the incredibly successful design of Curiosity, but the instruments it takes along for the ride will be vastly improved.
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The Mars 2020 rover will be equipped to investigate the geology of Mars with an eye toward detecting the signs of past (or present) life on the Red Planet. It will use Raman Spectroscopy and x-ray lithochemistry to identify elemental components and organic materials on Mars with much more sensitivity than Curiosity can. It may also carry an experiment to produce breathable oxygen from Mars’ predominantly carbon dioxide atmosphere. This could have major implications for future manned missions.

James Webb Space Telescope launch

We’ve been talking a lot about the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) lately — NASA has completed construction of the hardware, and is currently testing it on the ground. It has also asked astronomers to begin submitting proposals for time on the telescope after it’s online. This telescope will be much more powerful the Hubble, which has a mere 48 square feet of reflective surface compared with JWST’s 270 square feet.
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The James Webb Space Telescope will be able to seem further into the infrared than Hubble, meaning it can study objects that are obscured by dust or gas. In order to avoid avoid contaminating heat, the telescope will be placed in the L2 Lagrange point with the Earth permanently between the telescope and the sun. The launch is currently on track for October of 2018.

New Horizons Kuiper Belt Extended Mission

NASA’s New Horizons mission was big news in 2015 when it reached Pluto after nearly a decade in space. It’s not over for the plucky little probe—NASA has added a Kuiper Belt Extended Mission (KEM) to the schedule. The plan is to send New Horizons onward into the Kuiper Belt to examine these frigid balls of rock and ice.
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New Horizons will make a flyby of an object known as 2014 MU69 on January 1st 2019. This object is 20 or 25 miles in diameter and has an unknown composition. This will be the first time we’ve gotten a close-up look at a Kuiper Belt object (other than Pluto). Their similarities or differences could tell us a great deal.

ExoMars, part 2

Okay, the first part of ExoMars (a joint effort of the ESA and Russia’s Roscosmos) didn’t go super-well when the stationary Schiaparelli lander delivered by the Trace Gas Orbiter crashed into the surface. The second phase of ExoMars is set to launch in 2020, and hopefully it goes better. This will include a new surface platform and a rover.
ESA Exomars robot
The new ExoMars surface station will be used to monitor the planet’s orbit and atmospheric variables over the course of a year. Meanwhile, the rover will have an advanced exobiology module to search for signs of life. A core drill will also allow the rover to dig deep into the surface to obtain its samples. The ESA and Roscosmos expect the landing to take place in 2021.

SpaceX Dragon 2 crewed flight

SpaceX is one of two companies currently participating in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, the other being Boeing. There’s nothing wrong with Boeing’s plans, but SpaceX has a lot more interesting new technology in the crewed version of the Dragon capsule. Like the current cargo Dragon, the Dragon 2 capsule will be launched by a Falcon 9 rocket that can land back on Earth after sending the second stage into space.
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Dragon 2 will have space for seven astronauts, and NASA has already contracted for six crewed flights to the ISS. The next few years will include milestones for the Dragon 2 — the one to watch is in May of 2018. That’s when the Dragon 2 will ferry two astronauts up to the ISS, marking the first time humans have ridden an American spacecraft since the Space Shuttle was retired.

Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM)

There are thousands of near-Earth asteroids, and we can only learn so much about these objects from robotic exploration. Sending people to an asteroid is still outside our capabilities, but maybe we can bring part of one here. NASA’s JPL is working on a plan to visit a nearby asteroid with a probe, and bring a piece of it back.
The Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) is currently planned for a 2021 launch, but there’s still a lot of planning that needs to be done. The probe would land on an asteroid like 2008 EV5 and pick up a 4-meter boulder. The mission could also include an analysis of gravity deflection — testing to see if the mass of the probe and boulder can affect the orbit of the asteroid. The boulder would pose no danger to Earth if it were to get away on the return trip. The idea is that it could be deposited in orbit of the moon and astronauts could visit it at a later date in the mid 2020s.