2022 marked the year that NASA returned humans to the Moon for the first time since 1972 with the uncrewed Artemis I test flight. 2024 is shaping up to be an even more monumental year for space exploration, with multiple high-profile missions to the Moon, Mars, Europa, and beyond slated to launch.
Artemis II to Send Astronauts Around the Moon
After the successful Artemis I flight, all eyes are now on the crewed Artemis II mission, the next step in NASA’s Artemis program to establish a sustainable human presence on and around the Moon.
Artemis II is scheduled to launch no earlier than May 2024. A crew of four astronauts will fly Orion around the Moon and back, reaching a distant retrograde orbit 40,000 miles beyond the far side of the Moon – the farthest any human has ever traveled from Earth.
While no landing is planned for Artemis II, it will test critical systems like life support, communication, navigation, and heat shields ahead of the landing missions. The data gathered will also allow mission planners to select landing sites for Artemis III, slated for 2025.
|Uncrewed circumlunar test flight with 4 astronauts
|No earlier than May 2024
|Space Launch System Block 1 rocket
|Test life support systems, achieve distant retrograde orbit, select Artemis III landing sites
The four astronauts selected for Artemis II represent the diversity of America and global space community. The crew includes commander Charlie Duke, lunar module pilot Randy Bresnik, command module pilot Christina Koch, and ICE commander Fei Junlong from China.
VIPER to Explore Lunar South Pole for Resources
In addition to the Artemis flights, NASA is also gearing up to send the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) to the Moon’s South Pole in late 2024. Part of the Artemis program, the VIPER rover will map lunar resources in permanently shadowed regions that likely contain large deposits of frozen water.
Understanding the location, concentration, and accessibility of lunar resources will be critical for establishing a sustained human exploration program on and around the Moon. Water ice can potentially be used for drinking, breathable oxygen, and rocket fuel production.
VIPER has several science instruments to detect subsurface water ice, take surface and subsurface temperatures, and sample lunar regolith. It will explore diverse areas of the South Pole over 100 days, informing future human missions.
|Moon’s South Pole
|Near Shackleton crater
|Neutron spectrometer, near-infrared volatile spectrometer, drill, mass spectrometer
|Map distribution and concentration of water ice to support sustained lunar presence
Crewed Moon Landings to Follow in 2025
Building off the momentum from Artemis II and VIPER, the Artemis III mission aims to return astronauts to the lunar surface in 2025. Using a human landing system designed by SpaceX, two astronauts will spend 6.5 days exploring the lunar South Pole.
This area has peaks with near constant sunlight, ice deposits in shadowed craters, and rock formations dating back billions of years. These sites will allow the crew to conduct scientific studies, test technologies, and better understand how to live and operate on the Moon long-term.
Artemis III will mark the first human lunar landing since Apollo 17 in 1972, kicking off a regular cadence of Moon missions. Future flights will perform more complex tasks like operating lunar rovers, harvesting resources, and testing habitation prototypes – all in preparation for eventual Mars missions.
|Artemis III Objectives| |
| Demonstrate crewed lunar landings|
|Explore south pole sites of interest|
|Conduct scientific studies and technology demos|
|Establish capabilities for long-term presence|
Mars Sample Return Campaign Continues
While the Moon is the immediate focus, Mars exploration also has major milestones in 2024. Phase two of the Mars Sample Return campaign is set to launch, delivering the Sample Retrieval Lander and Mars Ascent Vehicle to the Red Planet.
These elements will link up with the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter already operating on Mars. Perseverance has collected over a dozen rock cores with signs of ancient microbial life. The next steps are for Perseverance to transfer these precious samples to the lander, which will then launch them into orbit around Mars.
The samples are expected back on Earth by 2033, where scientists can study them directly with advanced lab equipment. This would mark the first pristine Martian material returned for study, revolutionizing our understanding of Mars’ potential for past life.
|Mars Sample Return Campaign
|2024: Sample Retrieval Lander & Mars Ascent Vehicle launch
|Retrieve cores collected by Perseverance
|2026: Mars Orbiter retrieves sample container
|Orbits samples around Mars
|2031: Earth Return Orbiter captures samples
|Transfers container from Mars orbit to Earth
|2033: Sample container returns to Earth
|Advanced analysis of pristine Martian material
Ambitious Missions Bound for Jupiter & Europa
Looking beyond Mars, Europa and Jupiter will also see visitor’s in 2024. NASA’s Europa Clipper and the European Space Agency’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) are both set to embark on their journeys toward the gas giant and its icy ocean world.
Europa and Enceladus are thought to have liquid water oceans below an icy crust – potential habitats for extraterrestrial life. Learning more about these moons could revolutionize the search for life elsewhere.
The Europa Clipper will conduct a detailed survey of Europa, analyzing its interior ocean and looking for plumes that could contain organics. Set for at least 45 flybys, it will gather data on Europa’s geology, chemistry, water activity and other characteristics to assess habitability.
Meanwhile, JUICE will enter orbit around Jupiter to explore the giant planet along with three of its moons: Ganymede, Callisto and Europa. Its instruments will study their atmospheres, surfaces, interiors structures and potential subsurface oceans. JUICE’s 10 instruments will provide the most comprehensive exploration of the Jupiter system to date.
|Jupiter System Missions
– 45+ flybys of Europa
– Analyze surface and subsurface
– Assess geology and habitability
– Enter Jupiter orbit
– Explore Ganymede, Europa & Callisto
– Study atmospheres, surfaces, interiors
– Assess potential habitability
These ambitious missions to ocean worlds represent significant steps in assessing whether life exists beyond Earth. They pave the way for more complex robotic spacecraft and eventual human exploration of Jupiter’s neighborhood.
Private Sector Ramps Up Space Efforts
While government agencies continue to lead exploration into deep space, 2024 will also see major progress from private space companies. Blue Origin aims to conduct its first crewed suborbital spaceflight with an all-female astronaut lineup.
The mission caps off 15 successful uncrewed flights for Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle. It will boost six female crew members to the edge of space and back, testing upgrades for a more comfortable passenger experience. Flying a diverse crew aligns with Blue Origin’s vision to provide increased space access.
Suborbital hops are an important step toward orbital flights and space tourism. Blue Origin plans to follow up with New Glenn orbital launches in 2024 as well, expanding infrastructure for commercial utilization of space.
Virgin Galactic also reached space in 2022, but still aims to conduct regular suborbital space tourism flights. Their goal is to fly the 3000+ people who have already booked tickets over the next few years.
While government efforts pursue science and exploration, private companies are helping expand access for education, research, entertainment and more. The technology being proven today will allow more people to experience space travel than ever before.
Conclusion: Monumental Year Ahead
With multiple high stakes missions across the solar system, 2024 is set to be the biggest year for space exploration in decades. The Moon will take center stage as NASA returns astronauts there and learns how to tap into lunar resources. But Mars, Europa, and Jupiter exploration also reaches new heights.
Successful execution of the diverse 2024 manifest will reinvigorate deep space exploration across the globe. These missions will generate new discoveries about planets, moons, and space environments – while testing technologies to take humans farther than ever in the coming years.
If program schedules hold, sample returns, crewed lunar landings and historic firsts across the solar system await. Together, government agencies and private companies are advancing space exploration on multiple fronts – with 2024 the culmination of years of preparation.
The investments made both in space and back on Earth will drive innovation, produce new scientific insights and motivate the next generation. With such an ambitious slate of discovery and adventure ahead, 2024 may well usher in a 21st century “golden age” of space exploration.
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