5 space exploration imperatives to achieve by 2030
The year 2030 sounds a bit like science fiction. But we are just over seven years away from that auspicious date and we are still awaiting a human return to the Moon and a human mission to Mars. We are almost a third of the way through this new 21st century. So, I would say it’s time we started living out at least some of our sci-fi aspirations.
Here are five space exploration goals we need to achieve by the end of the decade.
— A human return to the Moon with a sort of permanent lunar foot at the South Pole.
It’s already 2022 and NASA’s Artemis program has been pushed back by a combination of Covid and a change in the US presidential administration. Early projections for Artemis to land a crew on the lunar surface at this point are no earlier than 2025.
Artemis should be just the start of a human presence on the Moon, which should see some sort of permanent settlement in the form of an outpost that isn’t even necessarily permanently occupied but can be accessed from a gateway in lunar orbit. Whether that turns out to be the “gateway” touted for a decade by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), or something less ambitious, remains to be seen. But such a gateway could serve as both a refuge and a staging facility for human missions to and from the surface.
—- An honest and realistic timeline for a public-private partnership to send astronauts to Mars.
It’s highly doubtful that Elon Musk and SpaceX will be able to complete a human launch to Mars by 2030. But by the end of the decade, it’s still possible to have a solid, funded plan for a future human mission to Mars. 2040 is probably more realistic for launching astronauts to Mars, assuming the Mars Transfer Craft would use nuclear-powered engines capable of getting a crew to Mars in 4-6 months.
I would opt for a ground surface start-up mission with some sort of Mars orbital gateway in place to act as a sanctuary for astronauts heading to and from the surface. Such a gateway to Mars could be in place by 2035, well before the late 2030s launch of a crew of four astronauts to Mars.
Although many wonder why we should put in the effort to send humans to Mars for a surface stay of only 30 days, it is a long overdue fatality. We don’t necessarily have to colonize Mars. But it’s within realistic reach of our technological spaceflight capabilities at the present time and like climbing Mount Everest, it would test our mettle as a species.
In many ways, having a comprehensive understanding of Mars is essential to having a comprehensive understanding of our geological and evolutionary history here on Earth.
However, a crewed NASA mission to Mars is no longer considered possible until 2037.
—- A credible interstellar precursor mission that would test new propulsion technologies.
Personally, I’m not a fan of tiny laser-sail interstellar propulsion technology. Instead, I say let’s make a concerted effort to build next-generation space propulsion technology that would enable end-of-the-century travel to the solar system’s distant Oort Cloud. The Oort Cloud is a very large, massive body of cometary debris remnants thought to orbit our solar system at distances of up to three light years.
Astronauts won’t be making the Oort Cloud anytime soon. But there’s no reason we can’t launch a precursor interstellar probe by 2030. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) worked on several ideas for interstellar precursor missions in the 1990s and is expected to return to this effort. Even so, as I noted here previously, a $2 billion spacecraft bound for 200 AU (astronomical units) or Earth-Sun distances is far enough away to get a real feel for the pristine interstellar medium. And it’s also likely that ground controllers could track the spacecraft up to 1000 AU
If our robotic probes and eventually us humans are to travel to the stars, we must launch a plethora of robotic probes with the imperative that each new spacecraft be faster than its predecessor. Only then will we close the distance gap between the inner and outer solar system.
—- The launch of an orbital mission to Pluto
NASA’s New Horizons flyby mission to the dwarf planet Pluto and the Kuiper Belt inspired us all with its exquisite display of speed, navigation and timing. Congratulation to all participants. But New Horizons also opened a scientific Pandora’s box in Pluto. This mission forever changed planetary science’s view of Pluto from an impenetrable, hazy blob to a surprisingly geologically active land-ice world just waiting to be explored.
Thus, it makes sense to send a combination of robotic orbiter and small rover to Pluto. The mission would be equipped with enough science instruments to totally rewrite the textbooks once again. With a nominal one-year orbital mission circling Pluto, the mission’s rover could be sent to sample the surface in situ and transmit its data to the orbiter for return to Earth.
Given the estimated $3 billion cost of such a mission and the likely need for technology development, the mission would likely not launch until 2035. But by 2030, it could be fully funded and under construction.
—- The launch of a sample return mission to the dwarf planet Ceres.
Although the Enceladus and Europa flyby missions are often touted as the easiest way to find signs of existing microbial life in our own solar system, given our current technology, the launch of a combined mission orbiter and sample return to the relatively nearby dwarf planet Ceres is feasible by the end of this decade.
A $3 billion sample return mission could land on the dwarf planet’s mesmerizing Occator Crater. Ceres, a 950 km-diameter main-belt asteroid about two AU from Earth, may have hosted a mudball interior that may persist to this day. NASA estimates that about 35 km below its icy surface, Ceres could still harbor a muddy mixture of liquid and rock. If so, a lander mission to Ceres could, in theory, send a pristine 100-gram sample back to Earth for analysis.
Even if Ceres ends up having no evidence of extant or past life, planetary scientists could learn a lot by sampling one of the oldest planetary bodies in our inner solar system and pave the way for more robotic surface exploration. of our main asteroid belt.