In October 2023, NASA launched its long-awaited on-again, off-again Psyche mission. The spacecraft is on its way to study the metal-rich asteroid 16-Psyche, an M-type asteroid that could be the remnant core of a planetesimal that suffered a collision long ago. But understanding the giant, metal-rich asteroid isn’t the Psyche mission’s only goal.
It’s also testing a new laser communication technology.
Most rovers have been built for Mars, and each one of them is a complex machine designed with specific goals and terrains in mind. But the Moon is different than Mars. We’re not searching for life there; we’re trying to establish a presence.
In recognition of the difference, the ESA is developing modular rovers that can serve different needs with only small modifications.
In about one year from now, the European Space Agency will launch its Hera mission. Its destination is the asteroid Didymos, and it’ll be the second human spacecraft to visit the 390-meter chunk of rock. NASA’s DART mission crashed a kinetic impactor into Didymos’ tiny moonlet Dimorphos as a test of planetary defence.
Hera will perform a follow-up investigation of the binary asteroid to measure the size and morphology of the impact crater on Dimorphos. To help it along, it’s taking two tiny CubeSats that will land on Dimorphos.
There’s always a need for new technologies or for novel uses of existing technologies to lower the cost of space exploration and extend our reach. Lightsails are a novel type of spacecraft that could eventually be our first visitors to nearby stars like the Alpha Centauri system. But they could be put to productive use right here in our Solar System.
A recent study submitted to Acta Astronautica explores the potential for using aerographite solar sails for traveling to Mars and interstellar space, which could dramatically reduce both the time and fuel required for such missions. This study comes while ongoing research into the use of solar sails is being conducted by a plethora of organizations along with the successful LightSail2 mission by The Planetary Society, and holds the potential to develop faster and more efficient propulsion systems for long-term space missions.
The most promising places to look for life in the Solar System are in the ocean moons Europa and Enceladus. But all that warm, salty, potentially life-supporting water is under thick sheets of ice: up to 30 km thick on Europa and up to 40 km thick for Enceladus.
The main obstacles to exploring all that water are the thick ice barriers. Assuming a spacecraft can be designed and built to melt its way through all that ice, what then?
Submarines can do the actual exploring, and they needn’t be large.
In a recent study submitted to the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society for the 8th Interstellar Symposium special issue, which is due for publication sometime in 2024, Dr. Jacob Haqq-Misra, who is a senior research investigator and the Chief Operating Officer and co-founder at the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, examines how future space exploration governing laws could evolve, either crewed or uncrewed and in the solar system or beyond. He views this study as an expansion of interplanetary governance models he previously discussed in his book, Sovereign Mars, to explore potential limits on space governance at interstellar distances.
Plenty of areas in the solar system are interesting for scientific purposes but hard to access by traditional rovers. Some of the most prominent are the caves and cliffs of Mars – where exposed strata could hold clues to whether life ever existed on the Red Planet. So far, none of the missions sent there has been able to explore those difficult-to-reach places. But a mission concept from a team at Stanford hopes to change that.
A few years ago, there was a panic about lithium-ion batteries that exploded and could do things like take down a jetliner. On a recent trip, an airline asked passengers to turn in any devices with batteries that had been banned because of safety concerns. These are indicators of a widely understood downside of lithium-ion batteries, ubiquitous in cell phones, laptops, and other electronic hardware – they can easily catch fire very spectacularly. However, a team at the Aerospace Company is working on an idea to turn this potentially catastrophic event into an asset – by using it to deorbit defunct satellites.
Radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) are the power plants of the interplanetary spacecraft. Or at least they have been for going on 50 years now. But they have significant drawbacks, the primary one being that they’re heavy. Even modern-day RTG designs run into the hundreds of kilograms, making them useful for large-scale missions like Perseverance but prohibitively large for any small-scale mission that wants to get to the outer planets. Solar sails aren’t much better, with a combined solar sail and battery system, like the one on Juno, coming in at more than twice the weight of a similarly powered RTG. To solve this problem, a group of engineers from the Aerospace Corporation and the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Lab came up with a way to take the underlying idea of an RTG and shrink it dramatically to the point where it could not potentially be used for much smaller missions.