2016 was a big year in space exploration. The ExoMars probe arrived at the Red Planet. A Chinese crew spent a month aboard the country's new Tiangong-2 space station. SpaceX landed a rocket—the first step in full reusable spacecraft, which will drastically cut the cost of launches.
What's next for America and other spacefaring nations? Here's what's planned for the next few years.
More Rovers on Mars
Though the European Space Agency's ExoMars orbiter arrived safely, its lander crashed. The ESA plans to send another craft to the surface—this time a rover. It will land in 2021 and look for signs of current or previous life. Meanwhile, NASA plans to send its rovers Opportunity and Curiosity some company in the form of Mars 2020 (no official name yet), which will launch in that year. It's a virtual twin of Curiosity and will also focus on biosignatures for life.
But that's not all. In 2018, NASA is also sending InSight. It's a lander that will "drill beneath the surface to investigate the Red Planet's interior structure... to give scientists a better understanding of Mars' evolution as a rocky planet," according to the agency. In 2021, China plans to land its own lander and rover on Mars. This would be a rehearsal for the country's eventual goal: a mission that returns a sample to Earth in the 2030s.
Return to the Moon
As I mentioned, China's Yutu ("Jade Rabbit") rover has been on the surface since 2013 and is still functioning. China is planning several more lunar missions. Chang'e 5, launching in 2017, will land on the moon, dig down two meters to collect rocks and soil, and then blast off, rendezvous with an orbiter, and return to Earth. Chang'e 4, launching in 2018, will send a lander and rover to the far side of the moon—something never done before.
ISRO, the Indian space agency, also plans a lunar mission in 2018. Chandrayaan-2 will include an orbiter and rover. Japan, too, is sending a lander to the moon, most likely in 2019.
NASA also has missions planned for the moon, and all with awesome names. The Lunar Flashlight probe is a 2018 orbiter that will use an infrared spectrometer to scan for water ice deposits on the moon. The Lunar IceCube, also launched in 2018, will conduct similar scans. SkyFire will perform a flyby in 2018, using spectroscopy and thermogaphy to retrieve data about the lunar surface.
An even more exciting mission means a lot for the future of crewed spaceflight. 2018 will see the launch of Exploration Mission 1, the first test of the Orion spacecraft, designed to eventually send astronauts to Mars. The un-crewed Orion will fly around the moon, test its systems, and return home. The 21-day mission will be the farthest a human-capable ship has traveled. In fact, many nations are planning crewed landings on the moon, including the European Union, Japan, Russia, and China. The United States plans to get there in 2023—but not land. Exploration Mission 2 will just be a flyby, in preparation for an asteroid retrieval mission (see below). Even if there are no boots on the surface, it will still be the first time humans have left low Earth orbit since 1972.
Study of Jupiter's Moons
In 2022, the ESA will launch its JUICE mission—the study of Jupiter's icy moons. In will arrive in 2022 and study not just the gas giant but also Ganymede, Europa, and Callisto. The orbiter will conduct the first sounding of Europa's subsurface ocean. It will zoom around the Jovian system, taking readings of Jupiter's polar regions, conducting many flybys of Calliston, and spending eight months around Ganymede.
NASA has also proposed (not the same as "planned") the Europa Clipper mission, a flyby of Europa in the 2020s. Like JUICE, it would include ice-penetrating radar to get our first glimpse of the liquid saltwater ocean believed to lie beneath miles of ice. NASA wants a lander as well, to dig a little of the way down, but so far the budget hasn't been there.
First Mission to Phobos
In all the exploration of Mars, its little moons get little attention. JAXA, the Japanese space agency, plans to change that in 2022. It will launch the MMX (Mars Moon Exploration) probe, which will land on Phobos, collect "at least 10 g of regolith samples," do a few flybys of sister moon Deimos, and then return the samples to Earth. This operation isn't as easy as it sounds, since Phobos is basically a mini-asteroid, with gravity just one tenth of one percent of Earth's.
A New Space Station
I mentioned that Chinese astronauts just completed a 30-day mission aboard its new, small space station. The country plans to launch a larger module, Tiangong-3, in 2022. Another module will follow, allowing for more missions and experiments. Most space experts see a space station as an important component of flying to the moon and Mars, so a large, permanent station would keep China competitive with the US.
The International Space Station is currently scheduled to be decommissioned in the mid-2020s, though the decision isn't final. If the ISS is shut down, Russia has announced it will break off the ISS modules it controls and use them to create the new Russian Orbital Station. So, though unlikely, it's possible that in ten years, China and Russia will have stations in orbit and the United States will not.
Asteroid Redirect Mission
This is perhaps the most exciting prospect for the near future, mostly because it involves actual astronauts. NASA plans the Asteroid Redirect Mission for the 2020s. As the agency puts it, the ARM will be "the first-ever mission to identify, capture, and redirect a near-Earth asteroid to a stable orbit around the moon, where astronauts will explore it in the 2020s, returning with samples." So we'll get to see astronauts walking, climbing, and bouncing over the surface of a mini-planet. Not quite Apollo 11, but still pretty cool.
As I mentioned, there is currently no plan for American astronauts to walk on the moon. Any Mars mission wouldn't happen until the 2030s, and no country has yet developed the technology (or budget) for such an undertaking.
Where would you like humans to go in the next two decades? Launch your thoughts in the comments.