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The next decade of Space exploration

We will see a number of new launch vehicles, study the Red Planet to prepare for pioneering manned missions, and learn about the icy moons in unprecedented detail.

The Europa Clipper mission. Image: NASA.

One of the most exciting launches scheduled is that of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). This next generation telescope is so powerful, that it can detect a bumblebee on the surface of the moon. It will be used to observe exoplanets in more detail, and image the universe in more wavelengths than the HST. It will be able to look into the earliest galaxies to form in the Universe. Expect bigger and more awe inspiring images and science than what the HST gave us. The Webb Telescope is scheduled for launch in 2020.

The JWST. Image: NASA. 

The biggest planned missions for ISRO is its first manned spaceflight – gaganyaan. A fully autonomous orbital capsule will house a crew of two or three “brahmanauts”. They will remain in orbit for between seven to twelve days. The rocket used for the spaceflight will be the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle, also known as “fatboy” or “Baahubali”. ISRO will also be developing its Reusable Launch Vehicle, or the Indian version of the Space Shuttle.

The ISRO crew module. Image: ISRO.

Constellations of navigation, communication and Earth Observation Satellites will be deployed. At least two companies, SpaceX and OneWeb are both planning constellations dedicated to provide worldwide broadband services. The SpaceX constellation, called Starlink will have 12,000 satellites, while the OneWeb constellation is made up of 648 satellites.

The OneWeb constellation. Image: OneWeb.

Expect more countries to start up their own space programs, and we will also see the first space tourists. SpaceX, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Blue Origin are all in the space tourism race. Bigelow Aerospace is expected to construct and deploy the first space hotel in the 2020s. These are likely to be formed of a chain of inflatable modules. The ISS is scheduled to be decommissioned after another ten years, but the Chinese space station is expected to be in orbit. In a mission that appears to be straight out of a space exploration video game, the Prospector 1 by Deep Space Industries is expected to be the first to evaluate a near Earth asteroid for its worth. That is, to figure out how viable private asteroid mining really is.

The first space hotel? Image: Bigelow Aerospace.

Launch Vehicles

Launch vehicles are the bread and butter of spaceflight. It does not matter if it is a novel probe to the outer planets, a pioneering manned mission, or just another communication satellite in orbit. Rockets are required to take stuff up into space. Right now, there are just not enough satellite launch systems to serve the demand. Over the course of the next decade though, we will be seeing a number of rockets come up, both big and small. Around 2019, the first flight of the next generation of NASA launch vehicles should take off. This is the Space Launch System, with will provide more thrust than the Saturn V. However, the Saturn could still put in more tons into orbit. The SLS series of vehicles will also be used for the early manned missions to Mars. The SLS has a number of planned upgrades. The launch capacity is expected to go up from 95,000 kg to 130,000 kg to low Earth orbit (LEO) over the course of these upgrades. The SLS is being developed as a partnership between NASA, Orbital ATK and Boeing. Over at Europe, the European Space Agency is in the process of developing the Ariane 6, which can place up to 20,000 kg in LEO. The rocket will reduce the costs of launches as compared to the Ariane 5, and allow more launches. The first flight is expected to take place around 2020.

The SLS. Image: NASA.

Mitsubishi, is developing the H3 rocket for JAXA, which will be a medium lift launch vehicle. The debut flight is expected to take place in 2020. China has a prolific fleet of Long March launch vehicles, and to reach its space ambitions, it plans to introduce the Long March 8 to its lineup. The rocket is tweaked to launch satellites in the sun synchronous orbit. The Long March 9, will have the capability of injecting 140,000 kgs into LEO, and the first flight is expected to take place in 2028.

The H3. Image: JAXA.

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is also expected to settle into a regular launch schedule, with the New Glenn being able to place 45,000 kg into LEO. The debut New Glenn launch is expected to take place in 2020. ISRO plans to introduce a 15,000 kg to LEO capacity rocket, known as the Unified Launch Vehicle. The low capacity is actually by design, a way to cut down costs, and to cater to a new market of CubeSat launches. This smaller launch vehicle will be capable of regularly launching microsatellites, nanosatellites and picosatellites. To increase its launch capacity, ISRO also plans to open up a third launchpad at its facility in Sriharikota. The largest capacity of all, would of course be that of the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) by SpaceX. The debut launch is expected to take place in 2022. The BFR will be capable of deploying 150,000 kg into LEO in the reusable configuration, and a staggering 250,000 kg in the expendable configuration. In the expendable configuration, the lower stages are not reused after the launch.

The New Glenn. Image: Blue Origin.


In the first half of 2019, ISRO has scheduled its second mission to the moon. There are three components to the mission, an orbiter, a soft lander and a rover. The purpose of the mission is to conduct a mineralogical study of the lunar surface. The ambitious follow up mission will go to the Lunar South Pole, a previously unexplored area. There are three components of the mission, an orbiter, a lander and a rover housed within it. All the components have been developed by ISRO. The launch was originally scheduled for the second half of 2018, but experts in consultation with ISRO wanted to improve the reliability of the subsystems to make sure that the mission was a success in the first attempt itself. In simulations, the lander was tumbling while it approached the lunar surface, so ISRO engineers modified the design to make sure that the soft landing is executed flawlessly.  

Chandrayaan 2 payload configuration. Image: ISRO.

Towards the end of 2018, CNSA, the Chinese space agency has also planned a mission to the moon. The Chang’e 4 mission will also consist of an orbiter, a lander and a rover. If successful, the mission will be the first to land on the far side of the Moon. A year later, China will attempt a Lunar sample return mission, the Chang’e 5. Around the same time, JAXA has also planned the Selene-2 follow up mission, which will also consist of an orbiter, a lander and a rover. In 2021, JAXA plans the Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) mission, an autonomous spacecraft that will decide where it wants to land, instead of a convenient landing spot. The mission hopes to land in a precise location, with 200 times more resolution than the Apollo missions.

SLIM. Image: JAXA.

SpaceX has agreed to take two mysterious tourists on an orbit around the Moon, and the launch was originally scheduled for 2018. However, Elon Musk has indicated that the it will be the Big Falcon that will carry the Dragon with the first Lunar tourists inside. Whoever commissioned the journey would have to wait till at least 2022. Virgin Galactic, or Blue Origin may start flying tourists to space before that time though. Boeing and Lockheed Martin can expected to enthusiastically participate in the space tourist race as well. China and Russia have some tentative plans for manned missions to the moon, but it is unclear if these will be realised within the next decade.

The SpaceX dragon can take tourists to the moon. Image: SpaceX.

The space agencies of a number of countries are collaborating on a long term project that will pave the way for future manned and unmanned missions spanning the solar system. CSA, JAXA, ESA, Roscosmos and NASA are all partners in the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, also known as the Deep Space Gateway. This space station will orbit the Moon, in the space between the Earth and the Moon. It will be used as a staging area for further missions to the Moon and Mars. The experiments, technology demonstrations and testing needed for the equipment used in robotic and manned missions, will be tested in the deep space environment of this space station.


The first pathfinding mission to Mars, to identify potential landing spots for the first colonial ship for the SpaceX base was scheduled to launch in 2018 itself. This was to be accomplished by a Dragon spacecraft, which was going to the Red Planet, which was why the mission was called the Red Dragon mission. Looks like the mission has been rescheduled.

The Red Dragon. Image: SpaceX.

The InSight mission to Mars which launched this month is expected to reach its destination in November. Then, Mars will receive a health checkup. A seismograph will act like a stethoscope, and measure the pulse of the planet, or vibrations in the ground. The instrument is sensitive enough to pick up vibrations due to storms. A self digging nail will carry a ribbon loaded with temperature sensors, to measure the temperature of the interior of Mars. We know a lot about the surface and the atmosphere, but very little about what lies beneath the surface of the Red Planet. The year 2020 is really the breakout year for Mars explorations. There are just too many missions scheduled for that year. An as yet unnamed Mars rover by NASA, and the Exomars rover by ESA will both be looking for signs of past and present life.

The United Arab Emirates will send out its Hope orbiter. China ambitions for its maiden mission to Mars, and will send both a rover and an orbiter. India plans its second mission to Mars, Mangalyaan-2 in either 2020 or 2021. After that, there are only proposals for missions, no concrete plans. ESA and JAXA both have incipient plans for sample return missions to Phobos in the mid 2020s. NASA’s PADME orbiter is a mission to dedicatedly study the moons of Mars. The JAXA Melos mission to Mars has a rover loaded with an aircraft. The BOLD mission by NASA plans to use six impact landers to study the surface for signs of ancient or current life. The next decade is going to be very exciting indeed, when it comes to the exploration of Mars. SpaceX is the only entity ambitious enough to have plans for a manned mission to Mars within the next decade. There are some other private spaceflight companies trying to get there first, Inspiration Mars and Mars One, but both of these projects are highly unlikely.

The Padme Mission. Image: NASA.

The Solar System

There are two high profile scheduled missions to the inner Solar System in the next ten years. The BepiColombo mission to Mercury and the Parker Solar Probe to the Sun. Only two probes have visited the innermost planet so far, Mariner 10 and Messenger. The BepiColombo mission is made up of two probes, that will both be inserted in orbit around Mercury. The mission is expected to take off later this year from Earth, will arrive in mercury in 2021, and will continue to study the planet till 2027 or 2028. The probe is equipped to study high energy particles around Mercury.

The elements of the BepiColombo mission. Image: ESA.

The Parker Solar Probe will fly closer to the Sun than any other spacecraft before it. In fact, it will fly right into the corona of the Sun. The delicate scientific instruments on board are protected by a 4.5 inch thick reinforced carbon–carbon composite shield. The spacecraft is designed to withstand temperatures of 1,377 degrees Celsius. The parker Solar Probe will face more heat and radiation than any other spacecraft so far. The Parker Solar Probe is also scheduled for launch later this year, and will arrive at the Sun in 2024.  

There are planned missions to the outer Solar System as well. The Europa Clipper mission by NASA is expected to take off between 2022 and 2025. Its mission is to study Europa, map the subsurface ocean, and if possible, find signs of life. The Europa Clipper is considered a follow up mission to the Galileo probe. Data gathered from the Galileo probe, and the Hubble Space Telescope have indicated that there are jets of water erupting from Europa. These jets give direct access to the subsurface ocean. Scientists previously believed that it would be required to drill through the ice cap and dispatch submarine drones to study the subsurface ocean on Europa. The jets change everything, because a probe with the right sensors on it can directly sample the material in the ocean, by flying through the jets. Galileo is believed to have flown through one of these geysers in a flyby in 1997, but unfortunately did not have the sensors on board to analyse the particles. The Europa Clipper mission is equipped with the requisite sensors.

The JUpiter ICy moons Explorer (JUICE) mission by ESA will study Ganymede, Callisto and Europa. All three moons have global subsurface oceans. The probe will map the surfaces of all the three moons, and peek into the water layers beneath. It will also study the atmosphere on Ganymede, as well as the interaction of its magnetic field with the Jovian magnetosphere. JUICE is scheduled for launch in 2022. The observation campaigns of Europa Clipper and JUICE are expected to overlap. If the subsurface oceans of these icy moons harbour life, we may know of it within the next ten years.

The JUICE mission. Image: NASA.
Aditya Madanapalle

Aditya Madanapalle

An avid reader of the magazine, who ended up working at Digit after studying journalism, game design and ancient runes. When not egging on arguments in the Digit forum, can be found playing with LEGO sets meant for 9 to 14-year-olds.